“Given our mission, we have a greater responsibility than I think almost anyone to an adherence to the truth.”
~ Ben Huebner, CIA’s lead transparency officer
When you think of CIA, do you think of transparency?
For most people, the answer is probably no. We’re hoping to change that by pulling back the curtain on privacy, civil liberties, and transparency at CIA.
Ben Huebner runs CIA’s Privacy and Civil Liberties office, and is also the Agency’s “lead transparency officer” under the DNI’s Intelligence and Transparency Plan. Ben started with CIA in 2016 from the Department of Justice, where he worked on intelligence oversight and transparency.
Balancing the value of transparency with the necessity of secrecy at CIA is no easy feat, as Ben can attest to.
“There can be some significant and dismal costs to our mission if we get it wrong,” says Ben. “But there are sometimes just as significant, and sometimes harder to see, costs in being overly secretive. Trying to find where that line is takes a lot of effort.”
If you’ve ever wondered why one of the most secretive organizations in the world cares about transparency, or how we go about protecting privacy and civil liberties, then keep reading.
Why Does CIA Have a Privacy and Civil Liberties Office, Anyway?
First, while all federal agencies have privacy officers, the law requires certain critical departments and agencies (including CIA, NSA, and FBI) to have a privacy and civil liberties officer. At CIA, the privacy and civil liberties officer has both an advisory role and a review role. Ben and his team make sure the Agency is meeting all aspects of our fundamental mission – collection of intelligence – within the framework of the law and with respect for constitutional principles.
In other words, they look at Agency programs and practices and make sure we’re living up to our commitment to safeguard privacy and civil liberties.
Although Ben’s office leads and coordinates the Agency’s efforts, they certainly are not the only player in the room. “We’d be doing it wrong if we were,” according to Ben. Protecting the privacy and civil liberties of US persons is really the responsibility of every single CIA officer.
Okay, So Where Does Transparency Come into Play Then?
In the past, the Agency didn’t make our rules and policies public because of concern about how that might show our sources and methods. But it also meant CIA wasn’t telling the American public how we were protecting their information.
“What we realized was that in order to assure Americans that their information was properly protected,” says Ben, “we needed to pull back the curtain a little bit.”
Transparency at a clandestine organization might at best seem like an oxymoron, or at worst, antithetical to CIA’s very mission.
But according to Ben, “Transparency doesn’t mean that we aren’t in the business of keeping things appropriately secret when they need to be kept secret.”
CIA’s mission and the safety of the men and women who contribute to it will always require that some things are classified. The key is there needs to be a real, identifiable, justifiable reason why that fact, that method, or that source needs to remain secret.
We believe we should share what we can and protect what we must.
“We can make a stronger argument about the things that need to remain secret,” says Ben, “when we can demonstrably show that when information can and should be released, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
In today’s digital environment, where our adversaries are operating on the same platforms you or I might be using to share information about our children, the public is going to want to know a bit more about what exactly CIA is and is not doing.
When we target a foreign adversary, most American’s want to know the following: that we’re targeting just that foreign adversary; that we’re doing it in the right way; and to the degree that we come across information about Americans in the process, that the information is handled properly.
How Has CIA Shown its Commitment to Transparency?
A great example of the cultural shift within the Agency is CIA’s Attorney General Guidelines, our core US person’s protection rules.
In 2017, the Agency publicly published our updated AG Guidelines, in full, on CIA.gov.
CIA released the guidelines in their entirety, and perhaps just as importantly, also published a press statement and detailed narrative document that walked readers through the guidelines (in non-lawyer terms), explaining what each section actually means.
“For me,” says Ben, “when we talk about transparency, release is part of it, but it’s not the whole ball of wax. Accessibility is part of transparency. Providing information to people in a way that’s easier to find, understandable, and relevant. Those are all parts of transparency too.”
The AG Guidelines Are Great, But What Else Has CIA Done In Terms of Transparency?
It’s fairly well-known that CIA put its entire CREST (25-year release) collection of over 12 million documents online, accessible to anyone with access to the internet. However, recent initiatives have focused not just on releasing information, but as Ben says, on making that information more accessible to the American public.
One example is the release of historic, starting with the old PICLs from the Kennedy Administration, to the PDBs from the Johnson, Nixon and Ford eras.
“Think about that for a second,” says Ben. “These are the actual Presidential Daily Briefs. They are quite literally the most closely held documents on earth. The idea that they’d see the light of day, even many decades later, is huge.”
Along with the release of those PDBs, we created materials to provide context. We’ve done similar treatments to recent releases on the Tet Offensive, Argentina, President Truman’s “Intelligence Bulletins,” and our newest on-going collection: “From the Vault.”
Looking forward, Ben’s goal is that when the Agency releases collections of primary documents, we also include, when possible, ways of highlighting the information from those documents to make them more accessible in real terms to the public.
This includes highlighting the releases at events and on our social media accounts.
“We have to engage where people actually are and where those conversations are happening,” says Ben. That’s why we’re on social media. It’s where a lot of conversations are happening right now.