Both Obama and members of the intelligence committees appear to have decided it’s more important to reassure us than inform us, lest public qualms disrupt necessary surveillance programs. Yet the intelligence community also has a long track record of claiming programs are necessary that are later shown to have little value.
Americans were told that the original warrantless wiretapping program authorized by President George W. Bush had “been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States,” and even that it had “saved thousands of lives.” Years later, an internal investigation was unable to back up those dramatic claims, and found that intelligence officials “had difficulty citing specific instances where [the program] had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes.” Instead, it had wasted time and resources by generating false leads and spying on people unconnected to terrorism.
The information-sharing hubs known as “fusion centers,” massively funded for years by the Department of Homeland Security, were repeatedly touted by top officials as “one of the centerpieces of our counterterrorism strategy” and a “vital, proven tool.” Once again, it was years later before a bipartisan Senate report found that the centers had squandered millions without ever producing a single shred of useful terror-related intelligence.
In each case, officials who believed they had special insight into the value of secret intelligence programs decided we needed to be shielded, for our own good, from any messy facts that might call those programs into question.