(Illustration by Guido Mendez)


Communicating our nation’s deepest secrets.

There is probably no more important job that speaks between the government and the public than the spokesmen for various parts of the administration,” said professor of political science Robert Pape, PhD’88.

Pape was leading “Covert Affairs: Communicating Our Nation’s Deepest Secrets,” an Institute of Politics–sponsored discussion of the proper balance between the public’s right to know and the need for secrecy on matters of national security. George Little, spokesman for the CIA from 2007 to 2011 and for the Department of Defense from 2011 to 2013, joined Tommy Vietor, a winter 2014 IOP fellow and White House National Security Council spokesman until 2013, before about 70 people in the Chicago Harris auditorium this January.

Vietor, who began working for then-Senator Obama in 2004 as a press van driver, could have blended in with the many students in the audience. The veteran Little was mostly a model of sober-minded precision, but his dry humor sometimes broke through, as in a story about a bad day at work after he misidentified former CIA director Leon Panetta’s golden retriever to the press as an Irish setter.

“Today more than ever, democratic governments are under enormous pressure from their publics when there is breaking news,” Pape said. Spokespeople like Little and Vietor are “the frontline soldiers who deal with those breaking events, who have to make decisions on a daily basis about where to put the line between what should remain secret versus what should be public.”

Robert Pape:I’d like to start by asking you to talk about one of the most important events of the last few years, the raid on Osama bin Laden, and to use that event to talk a bit about the balancing act between secrecy and the public’s demand to know.

George Little:The bin Laden operation was truly an amazing process. What I should say at the outset was it reflected, at the end of the day, justice. It also reflected incredible amounts of work by thousands of people over many years, and I happened to be lucky enough to be part of the tail end of that story.

I was brought in several months before the actual raid and told we might be pursuing bin Laden. I immediately started to worry, because as the circle got wider, I worried that I would get a phone call from the New York Times or Washington Post and it would leak. Luckily it never did, and that was a big surprise. But from the beginning I was saying, we’re going to have to start preparing for the public disclosure of this operation if and when the president decides to go through with it. We need to set him up well, we need to set up the agency well, we need to set up the military well.

So I made the case relatively early on that we needed to put together a no-kidding public affairs plan. I faced a little bit of resistance because this was in fact a covert Title 50 operation and there were some legalities involved with doing public affairs planning. But finally I got the lawyers to say yes when often they say no, and I embarked on an effort to start to put together a plan. It was fairly simple. I put together two scenarios. One was for success and one was for complete and utter failure, however defined: it wasn’t him, the operation went south, we had problems with the Pakistanis, you name it.

Tommy Vietor:Or we crashed the helicopter.

GL: Yeah, that was a stomach-turning moment that day. I put together a binder of about 66 pages—a draft of a presidential statement, a story line of what happened as well as I could possibly do it at that point, a classified intelligence story, and again for success and for failure.

RP:I’d like to ask a little more about operations that succeed and operations that fail and see how that changes your view on what is released in terms of classified information. You’ve been involved with the bin Laden raid and also the Benghazi fiasco, something that’s viewed as a success and something that’s viewed as not a success. Could you compare those events?

TV: I would argue that a lot has been revealed about Benghazi, probably as much if not more than the bin Laden operation. Obviously part of that is because of hearings and subpoenas and intelligence reports that came out. When you’re talking about traditional military activity there is a desire and a precedent and an obligation to disclose as much as you possibly can about what occurred, success or failure. Because Americans have a right to know what their military did. They have a right to know what sort of foreign policy is being made and how those decisions were made.

For me, our best days at the White House were when we were able to work on a decision for months and months, like the decision to increase troops in Afghanistan in 2009, and then bring people in, tell them the back story, help them understand not just what was decided but why: the rationale behind it and the challenges ahead as well as the reasons we hope it’s a success.

With respect to Benghazi, it’s a far different challenge because firefights like that are by their nature opaque. It’s hard to know exactly what happened. People have different recollections. This happened with the bin Laden operation as well. It’s hard to get information from faraway places in the middle of the night. A lot of the confusion in those early days was the result of a good faith effort to get information that proved to be wrong. I do think that incident was highly politicized.

GL:When it comes to the intelligence world and the military, there are twin imperatives. One is openness and one is secrecy, and they come into conflict sometimes. I have a bias toward openness, to say as much as you possibly can. I think that’s how our government should operate and how we should be oriented. It’s not just because I’m the spokesman—that’s just where we need to be as a country.

But there are some things that need to be secret and remain secret. I think most Americans appreciate that. I’ve seen so much go out the door that really shouldn’t, and it really puts us all in harm’s way, in my view. When sources and methods are revealed, particularly human sources, when operations are dimed out, this puts a lot of people at risk. Finding that balance is very difficult.

When I was in the intelligence community I used to say, look, there’s no constituency for us, right? There aren’t a lot of special interest groups out there defending the CIA. So you have to be a strong advocate when you’re the CIA’s spokesman. It was a difficult spot, but the way you earn credibility and trust is you have open, honest conversations with the American people and say as much as you can about the agency’s mission and its activities.

I would agree with Tommy on Benghazi. I think that most of [the information] is out there now. And it has been, regrettably, quite politicized. I’m not quite sure why. It’s worth remembering that four Americans lost their lives.

Maybe there were shortcomings along the way. But one thing that struck me in the months after Benghazi—hopefully the American people understand the limits of what we can do. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes they can be prevented, and I’m not weighing in one way or another on Benghazi in that respect. But we don’t have an omnipresent military. We can’t immediately rush to certain places. We assume risk as a department. Our men and women in the intelligence community and the military and State Department, they serve in very tough places, and they deserve a lot of credit for that choice, and we do as much as we can to protect them. But sometimes risk turns into tragedy.

RP: The massive release of information about the NSA [National Security Agency] looking at the metadata of all our communications puts front and center the issue of secrecy versus the public’s demand to know—not just because there’s a natural tension but also because there are splits in the public. The public is somewhat divided over this, and parts of the government may be as well. Can you unpack this complex equation a little bit for us and help us see it from your vantage point?

TV:With respect to Mr. Snowden and the documents he revealed, I can completely understand how those initial reports about the metadata collection or programs like Prism that seemed to be a sort of broad-brush collection system would be alarming. In the early days there was some inaccurate reporting that made it sound like warrantless wiretapping all over again as opposed to the collection of metadata. While I don’t support the disclosure of those documents, it has started a conversation. It’s something, frankly, that we need to constantly watch and course correct on. Trust is just not a sufficient answer.

But then I pick up the paper yesterday and read a story about the way that intelligence agencies use certain devices to get into Iranian computers or countries with nuclear programs, to bridge air gaps to get at Chinese cyberarmies. That is extraordinarily damaging. That is not whistle blowing, in my opinion. That is profoundly harming the United States’s capability to monitor the nuclear programs or proliferation of countries that have a record and a clear intent to make or sell incredibly dangerous destabilizing weapons.

I think that’s unconscionable and there’s no excuse for it. There is a tendency to talk about clemency for Snowden or see what he did as somehow heroic. Those arguments don’t make sense when you look at the fact that his disclosures are ongoing. We don’t know the extent of what he has or will leak. Until he stops doing what he’s doing, the idea that he can get forgiveness for it is not, I think, a reasonable expectation.

GL:I think the Snowden disclosures have done incredible damage. Maybe there is a healthy debate around it but in my view it shouldn’t have been triggered by this kind of disclosure of information. A lot of Americans don’t realize that there is an incredible amount of oversight over the intelligence community by the US Congress, the courts, organizations inside the executive branch. This is not NSA run amok.

Maybe folks like us need to do a better job of telling the oversight story. This is the Wikileaks example and not Snowden, but these kinds of revelations tend to have a truly chilling effect on our ability to interact with foreign countries, including our friends and partners. We do a lot of work with other countries through intelligence relationships. It’s usually the defense channel, the diplomatic channel, and the intelligence channel. That channel has been squeezed as a result of Wikileaks and the Snowden disclosures. That’s problematic.

One example: I was with Secretary Panetta in a meeting with a very senior foreign counterpart. I was a note taker. At one point this very senior foreign leader turned to me, he was half-joking, and said “Wikileaks?” I said OK, I’ll put the pen down. Of course I wasn’t going to go out and disclose the conversation. But that’s the kind of thing that has a truly chilling effect on our ability to talk candidly with other countries.

RP:Much of what our public sees is your speaking to our domestic audience, but a big part of your job is speaking to foreign audiences, for example in the Iranian negotiations over the nuclear program. We’ve been talking about secrecy versus the public’s demand to know, but with a negotiation there’s also a strategic element. Is it the case that your work is also public diplomacy and there is coordination with other efforts behind the scenes?

TV:Absolutely. The Iran talks are a great example of something where there’s an enormous need for coordination, with six countries negotiating with Iran. The need for secrecy is not because it’s in the United States’s interests or that there’s any problem if the American people knew a lot about what we were discussing with Iran. But the hard-liner faction in Iran doesn’t want these talks to succeed. When news of these talks leaks out, the hard-liners can often use it against the negotiators and the moderates who are doing this in good faith and scuttle the talks.

To your point about communicating with foreign audiences, it’s something the president was steeped with when he came into office, and he sent a number of direct messages to the Iranian people. For example, he delivered a Nowruz [Iranian New Year] message to the people of Iran, which was an important way to signal respect for them, appreciation for their culture, and recognition of the fact that it is a great country that has some not so great leaders at the moment. We see the long game, and our care and interest is with the Iranian people over the next decade.

RP:Have there been times when there has been a personal dilemma for you with the issue of what to reveal, what not to reveal—where your boss has wanted to reveal and you didn’t want to, or the other way around? Were there some situations where you found yourself at odds with your job?

GL:Especially with bad news, I live by two sayings. One is bad news, unlike fine red wine, doesn’t get better with age. You’ve got to get it out there, because saying number two, from Churchill, is if you’re going to go through hell, keep on going. That’s what you have to do, I think, especially with bad news. You’ve just got to get it out there. And grip it, acknowledge it, talk about what you’re going to do to remedy the situation, and move on. If you try to sit on things too long, you try to parse and add nuance and get too many people into the equation, you lose the ability to be authentic. I obviously wanted to collect the right facts and share the right information. I didn’t want to go to the podium too quickly. But I was often arguing, let’s just get this done. Let’s make sure we tell the story. We owe it to the American people even if it’s a tough slog for us.


Covert Affairs: Communicating Our Nation’s Deepest Secrets.