Last November, I opened my New York Times article on the 1967 battle of Dak To with the words, “I learned the hard way during the Vietnam war that when intelligence is ignored, people get killed.”
Revelation of intelligence to its target often has the same result. I spent thirty-five years of my life in intelligence. I saw it happen.
President Trump recently approved the release to the public of a highly classified (TOP SECERT/NOFORN) memo drafted by Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California. What is revealed to the public is also revealed to intelligence targets.
Compromise of sensitive intelligence is always dangerous. What the American public can’t know or understand—because all matters about intelligence are classified—is that revelations of sources and methods, directly or by inference, destroys intelligence. Once a target finds out that I’m gathering information about him and knows or can guess how I’m doing it, he can easily change his behavior and block further access to information about him. If I am monitoring his communications, he can stop communicating or change his method. If I am surveilling him, he can hide. If an agent is reporting on his activities, he can kill the agent.
The public is equally unaware of the value of intelligence. Knowing where an adversary is, what he’s doing, what his means of action include, and what his plans are is of inestimable value to the U.S. government. Removing that information by compromise can plunge us into the dangerous darkness of ignorance. A foe can act against us with no warning.
Most important, revealing of intelligence sources and methods can cause deaths. If the sources were human, the target removes them, usually by killing them. Put bluntly, when intelligence is made known to the target, people often die.
Ordinary Americans can’t possibly be expected to know the ins and outs of intelligence and what the risks are. Nor will they know the results of intelligence loss. That’s why the actions of our elected officials are so crucial. They act in our behalf. In sum: The revelation of intelligence sources and methods for political gain is both morally questionable and dangerous to our security.