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The Intelligence Community Must Work to Gain the Public’s Trust
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The Intelligence Community Must Work to Gain the Public’s Trust

As threats mount across the globe, the public’s faith in government institutions has been shaken.

Late last month, Richard Moore, the chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) delivered an especially newsworthy speech. It was remarkable chiefly because it was so rare. Moore assumed his current role in October 2020, but hadn’t given a public address until now. 

In popular fiction, British spy masters lurk in the shadows, hiding their true identities from the public. Most famously, James Bond’s boss is known only as “M.” In the past, this was also a reality, as the heads of MI6 preferred anonymity. Indeed, the chief British spy was long referred to simply as “C.” This tradition dates back to the first head of the SIS in the early 20th century, Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming, who signed his correspondence with that lone initial.

But there has always been a tension within Western democracies between the dueling needs for transparency and secrecy. Some clandestine capabilities are necessary. But which ones? And how should elected representatives ensure that proper oversight is conducted on behalf of the people? 

Moore is clearly sensitive to these questions. He began his speech by noting how odd it was for a British spy chief to be addressing the public. He explained that “it is an important part of the way we hold ourselves to account, within a democracy, of how we retain public support for what we do, and – I hope – how we inspire people to want to come and join us.” 

Moore’s framework for understanding the current threat environment will appear familiar to anyone who read the National Security Strategy released by the Trump administration in December 2017. The authors of that document divided security challenges into three categories: the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia, “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea, and “transnational threat organizations” (mainly jihadist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS).

Similarly, Moore spoke of the “‘big 4’ set of threats: China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism, as well as the overarching technological challenge.” For some unknown reason, he did not mention North Korea. Otherwise, the British spy master’s list of priorities is in line with the American understanding. 

On China, Moore echoed the sentiment often heard from U.S. officials about the need to find common ground on some issues, including climate change. But he also stressed “that China is an authoritarian state, with different values from ours.” This gap is “reflected in the threats we see emanating from the Chinese state, that coexist with these opportunities for cooperation.” Moore’s wording seems to be a subtle rebuke of anyone who thinks that the U.S. can ignore these “different values,” focusing solely on pure power politics.

Like his American counterparts, Moore warned that the Chinese intelligence services “continue to conduct large scale espionage operations,” targeting virtually every significant layer of British society. “Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6,” Moore explained. “We are deepening our understanding of China across the UK intelligence community, and widening the options available to the government in managing the systemic challenges that it poses.”

On Russia, Moore called for similar clarity regarding the nature of Vladimir Putin and the threat posed by the Kremlin. He again subtly rebuked those who think we can just get along by downplaying or ignoring Putin’s hostile moves. “No country, in Europe or beyond, should be seduced into thinking that unbalanced concessions to Russia bring better behavior,” Moore warned. He argued that if the Kremlin ceased its “destabilizing activity” around the globe, it “would enable us to focus on common threats, and address Russian legitimate interests through dialogue.” I don’t think the British spy chief is holding his breath. 

On Iran, Moore highlighted the role played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has exported the Iranian revolution to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. “Iran has also built up a substantial cyber capability which it has used against its regional rivals as well as countries in Europe and North America, and maintains an assassination program which it uses against regime opponents,” Moore said. He likened Iran to Russia, claiming “it is no coincidence that the two countries have made common cause in Syria,” where they have saved Bashar al-Assad’s regime from Sunni jihadists and others. 

Moore was adamant that the terrorist threat hasn’t gone away, even as other foes have risen. He was particularly concerned about the fall of the government in Kabul earlier this year. There “is no doubt about the morale boost the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has given to the extremist movement globally, as well as its potential emboldening effect on countries such as Russia, China, and Iran.” Those nations sense America’s weakness.  

At one point, Moore explained he “won’t soft soap it, the threat we face will likely grow now we have left Afghanistan.” Both “al-Qaeda and Daesh [ISIS] will seek to increase their foothold, and to rebuild their ability to strike Western targets.”

It’s easy to see why Moore decided to engage the public now, even if it was a break with precedent. The public’s faith in government institutions has been shaken. As I read through the transcript of his speech, I couldn’t help but weigh the American experience in this regard. 

The last 20 years of U.S. history have been filled with intelligence-related controversies. Think about all the ways in which stories involving the U.S. intelligence community, or related parts of the American government, have dominated headlines: the intelligence failures prior to the 9/11 hijackings and in the lead up to the Iraq War, the CIA’s controversial interrogation program and other detainee operations, the aggregation of cellphone and other wireless data, the drone wars, the collapse of human intelligence networks in countries such as China and Iran, as well as the massive computer hacks of sensitive information and classified intelligence by foreign adversaries and others. 

Some of these controversies involve legitimate disagreements over the scope of the U.S. government’s power. Others have centered on the government’s failures to accurately assess and counter foreign threats. 

Much of the American discourse has been driven by the political left, which rejected the measures taken by the Bush administration following 9/11. But criticism from the right has been growing, too, especially as the concept of an all-powerful “deep state” has taken hold. That idea has been amplified by the intelligence community’s missteps, including its embrace of the so-called Steele dossier, which was compiled by a veteran of Moore’s own agency. It should’ve been easy for senior U.S. officials to see that Christopher Steele’s memos were a work of fiction. Instead, the document gained far more traction than it deserved.

To be clear: There is ample room for rational criticism and debate. But legitimate concerns and arguments are increasingly drowned out by conspiratorial nonsense. Think of the QAnon cult, which, in its earliest iterations, believed that former President Donald Trump is a messianic figure standing up to a satanic network of elite pedophiles. The “Q” phenomenon is just one example of a growing conspiratorial phenomenon – one in which reason quickly gives way to lunacy. It is one thing to think that senior U.S. officials shouldn’t have granted Steele’s rubbish any currency and that they should be criticized for having done so. It is quite another to believe that an omnipresent “deep state” is complicit in child sex-trafficking in the non-existent underground basement of a pizza parlor. 

All of which is to say: Richard Moore and his American counterparts need to earn the public’s confidence. That’s no small task.   

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.