ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Gimme an S-P-Y
Intelligence cheerleaders promote solidarity in the field.
There's a reason intelligence is called a "silent service." Spies tend to shy away from the limelight. Not that they're shrinking violets-hardly. But in a trade that's marked by slyness, subterfuge and occasional skullduggery, publicity is something generally best avoided.
Which is why the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a professional association comprising current and ex-officials, sometimes has trouble explaining what it does. A set of talking points that INSA drew up for journalists begins, "We collect former senior intelligence officials and government officials and use their expertise to solve problems and address issues facing the intelligence and national security communities." But there's a more concise way of saying what INSA's members do: They're cheerleaders for the intelligence profession.
Now, these folks aren't quite like the legions of the rah-rah sisterhood who decorate high school football players' lockers with streamers and heart-shaped well-wishes. INSA's small headquarters, a suburban Washington office building, is neither flashy nor particularly cheery. But the walls are lined with photographs of members chatting up some of the most seasoned and august denizens of the silent service-including current Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who was, until recently, INSA's chairman-which is a testament to just how vast the group's collection of heavyweights is. In April, INSA chose John Brennan, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a seasoned intelligence veteran, to be its new chairman.
The nonprofit opened for business in late 2005. Tim Sample, the association's president and a former CIA analyst and one-time staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, likes to promote intelligence as a professional discipline to anyone who will listen-the media, Congress, the business community and even the intelligence agencies themselves. Sample is quick to say that his outfit is not a trade association. And members definitely are not lobbyists, he emphasizes. INSA isn't trying to persuade agencies to do business with one company, or to adopt a political position. Members like to say they occupy a "niche" that lies somewhere between the government and the private sector. Imagine think tank meets advisory board crossed with a members-only professional club, then toss in a media affairs department and you're almost there.
So far, INSA mostly has provided a safe space for spies to talk about their jobs. In March, for example, the group hosted a meeting and luncheon on domestic intelligence with Richard Posner, a federal judge turned self-educated intelligence expert who writes books on how to reform the agencies to better fight terrorism. INSA has held similar town hall meetings with Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, and Frances Townsend, President Bush's homeland security adviser. The group also has funded a faculty position in intelligence at the Georgetown University Center for Peace and Security Studies.
Sample's No. 2, Frank Blanco, who was the No. 3 at the National Security Agency until he retired in early 2001, says people like him aren't used to tooting their own horns. "Most people in the intelligence community, I don't want to use the word afraid, but they're not able to articulate" what working for such an agency is all about, Blanco says. He recalled the days when his former boss, Hayden, then the NSA director, broke with tradition and spoke to journalists about the agency's work. "It scared the hell out of people," Blanco says.
"What INSA brings is an apolitical, unbiased advocate for intelligence and national security," Sample says. That means INSA does what the agencies often cannot. They have allegiances, priorities and enemies of their own. INSA, however, is trying to position itself in a sort of neutral zone: professional but not political. It's awkward territory, and success depends on whether the cheerleaders really can stay on the sidelines while still playing the game.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.