In light of the National Security Agency’s Prism program being called into public view from the dark crevices of classified information, government secrets, and other inherently non-transparent activities, I wanted to discuss a few points and introduce some thought on the matter. The purpose of this article is to discuss some commonly held views on the issue, as well as to introduce some talking points identifying the true issues at stake: privacy, security, and politics.

The Power of Failure?

Arguments have been made that if the NSA Prism program – and countless others the public will never know about due to their criticality to national security, protection of sources and methods, etc. – were so top-notch, the US wouldn’t have experienced recent terror attacks like those that struck in Boston, Detroit (underwear bomber), or Fort Hood (to name a few).

That argument warrants further examination. What about the countless other terror attacks that have been identified and thwarted prior to execution? You’re thinking, “good question. Surely there must have been others. Why don’t we know more? Is the government withholding information from us?” Yes and no. On one hand, the government is continuously conducting intelligence operations in conjunction with a number of assets purposed with finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing terror threats across the globe. The inherently dangerous and sensitive nature of these operations is enough to warrant tight lips, little media attention, and limited public knowledge of successful missions. On the other hand, the government’s ability to conduct these operations comes with a price: public transparency.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Let’s look at a few examples that demonstrate this situation. In the Intelligence Community and policy-making arenas, the failures are known to all and the successes only to a few. Research a few major intelligence failures we’ve experienced in recent U.S. history alone: Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, the Tet Offensive, the collapse of the USSR, 9/11, or Benghazi (don’t even get me started on this one). In all of these events, the points of failure in various levels of leadership, decision-making, and intelligence-information fusion was not properly identified, leading to massive events that were embarrassing and devastating for all parties involved, namely the United States.