Q&A with Jack Devine

In our first installment of “Communication Breakdown: The Domestic Surveillance Debate,” we sat down with Jack Devine. Mr. Devine served as both Acting Director and Associate Director of the CIA’s operations outside the United States. In this interview Mr. Devine sheds some light on the political process that governs clandestine operations, his opinion of the actions of Edward Snowden, and the future of surveillance programs conducted by the United States government.

Mr. Devine will have a book coming out this year, “Good Hunting – A Spymaster’s Story,” and has shared other thoughts about various US and foreign issues in Op-Eds and other formats. We hope you find our conversation with him as informative as we did.

Do you think Mr. Snowden’s actions jeopardized US security?

These are the points I would make: There isn’t any doubt that this has done huge damage to the United States. Not just the terrorists, but every sophisticated foreign government, not even sophisticated – is now aware of the USG’s technical reach. This has given the Chinese a wonderful propaganda tool in the midst of a time where we are trying to stop them from hacking into our systems.

There’s another issue. If every individual is free to speak out whenever they want, you have no classified system. You either don’t believe in classifying anything, which is a religion for some, but having been in the intelligence business, I understand just how important it is to protect sources, methods and activities in the US government. This is age old. From the beginning of our country, from George Washington forward, our leaders have always relied on protected secret information. But, at the same time, it must have Congressional oversight, and the decision must rest with elected officials

The President of The United States signs off on all covert action, the Congress is briefed, and the judiciary reviews where appropriate. In a democratic system you can engage in secret activity as long as you can provide these standards.

If Mr. Snowden believed he had uncovered egregious acts by the NSA, how should he have gone about addressing his issues?

If in the course of your Government employment you come across something that is egregious, there is an internal appeal process in which you can bring your complaint to the Inspector General. You can bring it to Congress or DOJ if you think there is an egregious problem.

I’m opposed to leakers stepping out and releasing classified data. There clearly were other avenues that were not explored by Mr. Snowden. The motivations for Snowden are not yet known. My own instincts are that they are tightly tied to psychological factors – relationship with his family, upbringing, issues with authority. Right now we don’t know all the facts.

Do you think the US government should have gone into greater detail explaining to US citizens about the domestic surveillance operations being undertaken by the NSA?

It would have been better if we had just “shown a little ankle on this” as Senator McCain made the argument.

I’m confident the American people would be behind it if you put this to a referendum. While I find it an attractive argument, I have trouble visualizing exactly how that could have been done. Should they have said: “by the way, I would like to inform you that I really appreciate what Verizon and Facebook is doing in providing data” end of story!

What news outlet is going to let it go at that? Instead, you could count on a host of questions! Personally, I have trouble visualizing the phraseology that shows a “little ankle.” Give me the sentences that allow you to queue it up. But I’m stumped on how that could be done.

How do elected officials and intelligence agencies determine what should be told to the public?

It’s neither the intelligence community nor the military’s responsibility to brief the public. The function is to execute policy. It comes back to those who are elected. It is their responsibility and it is a core aspect of democracy. If we don’t like what they do, we could “throw the rascals out.”

The inclination of most politicians is not to sit on secrets. Years ago, we used to just brief the chairman and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, then they decided to expand the number because they didn’t want to be holding the bag themselves. Most political figures generally want to put out as much as they can, so there is a trade off. Frankly, the “less is better” mindset also has its pitfalls. If it isn’t acceptable to the majority of the American people, it probably isn’t worth doing.

The question of timing: some things should stay secret forever. If you have a penetration in a foreign government, there’s no time that is good to make it public. Once you decide to go down the covert route, you should stay covert.

What is the relationship between elected US officials and Intelligence Agencies when conducting clandestine activities?

I spent a huge amount of time when I was running the Clandestine Service briefing Congress on what we did. So I know the extent of briefing Congress and its staff.

I know of no case in the last 50 years in which covert action was taken when the President didn’t know about it.

Too many people think the CIA works these things up on their own along with DOD, Special Forces, etc. No, the President must authorize them.

Mr. Snowden’s leak highlighted the role of private corporations in surveillance programs, as he was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton. What is your view on the role private corporations have taken within our intelligence establishment?

If you are looking at solving a problem you have to go to where the resources and solutions to the problems reside. If you are looking at communications, then you have to go where it resides, and it resides in the private sector. In a democracy you have, and should have, a robust relationship between the private sector and the public sector. As I read it, companies apparently were agreeing voluntarily, and then some of the companies decided it could be better if their legal departments were instructed to comply for their shareholders sake. Hence, the FISA decision and the Court reviewed it and the companies were instructed to be cooperative in the context of the Patriot Act.

As far as Booz Allen and other defense contractors are concerned, the high tech requirements are so enormous that the USG could not function without them.

Do you think the participation of private companies makes the United States more vulnerable to information being leaked?

There is a fundamental problem in this age in terms of protecting information.

That is, the extraordinary explosion in means of communication and storing information. Just 50 years ago, you would do it with pen and paper and you could lock it in your safe. This is a new world, and it’s going to be a problem that the intelligence world is will have to deal with for the next 25 years.

We need to figure out how you narrow down access in a system that is built to be expansive. For example, today everyone is trying to figure out how Snowden got access to sensitive data including the FISA order, which is restricted.

There’s the reverse pyramid today where, in years gone by, the most senior people were most knowledgeable about the business. Today where technology is moving at such a fast rate, technology is handled at the bottom of the pyramid. Generally, the seniors do not know their technical vulnerabilities and opportunities as well as the youngest employees.

Did Mr. Snowden’s actions jeopardize future intelligence operations?

I doubt it will make it more difficult to gain approvals for cyber activities. The Congress isn’t going to be obstructionist in that regard. There, however, will be no further expansion into the privacy of Americans.

The current level now seems within the bounds of the balance between democracy and secrecy. There is not going to be a popular outcry that is reflected by electoral results that is going to change policy and laws.

The Snowden incident is driving home just how vulnerable we are to the malcontent technically sophisticated employee. One malcontent can throw a wrench into a multi billion-dollar program. Everybody that’s in either the military, security, or intelligence around the world surely is toughening up their own vulnerabilities.

In sum, it’s just much more complicated and much harder to protect sensitive secrets. The post 9/11 mantra, “connect the dots,” has come back to haunt us.


Jack Devine: Founding partner and President of The Arkin Group LLC and a 32-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”). While at the CIA, Mr. Devine served as both Acting Director and Associate Director of the CIA’s operations outside the United States and, in this capacity, he had supervisory authority over thousands of CIA employees involved in sensitive missions throughout the world.