Democracy's strength: Eyes on the spies

In public hearings before Congress, top U.S. intelligence officials not only give their best estimates of threats to the U.S., but also ensure their work is transparent and accountable. That makes dictators uneasy.

CIA Director William Burns, right, fist bumps with Sen. Roy Blunt before an April 14 Senate committee hearing about worldwide threats.

President Joe Biden’s inbox on foreign affairs is quite full. China’s war jets are harassing Taiwan. Russia has amassed troops on the border with Ukraine. Iran is nearing production of weapons-grade uranium. The Taliban appear to be winning the Afghanistan War. And who knows what North Korea is doing. Yet amid all these threats, one strength that the U.S. commander in chief can count on is happening over two days of hearings this week in Congress.

America’s adversaries are amazed at – and probably watching – the twin public briefings April 14-15 by the top intelligence chiefs about the incipient global challenges for the United States. These quadrennial open-session assessments reflect core values not found in authoritarian regimes: transparency and accountability, even for secretive spy agencies.

Lawmakers are grilling the nation’s top spooks, making sure this hidden side of government is as clear as possible about its warnings, honest about its suggestions, and open about its responsiveness to the governed.

“The American people should know as much as possible about what their intelligence agencies are doing to protect them, consistent with the need to safeguard sensitive sources and methods,” said Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, during her confirmation hearings in January.

While the U.S. has made many mistakes in foreign conflicts, it has also gained wisdom by a commitment to open deliberation and civic participation for important decisions.

“Democracy’s strengths are the very attributes that authoritarians most fear: the inherent demand for self-examination and criticism, and the capacity for self-correction without sacrificing essential ideals,” states a report released Tuesday by Freedom House, in partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the McCain Institute.

That report recommends the U.S. and its partners increase investments in the pillars of their democratic societies: openness, accountability, inclusiveness. This means free and fair elections, vibrant news media, and active watchdog groups. All these pillars are rooted in a belief in the inherent rights of individuals, including the right to grant sovereignty to elected leaders. Autocrats believe only they bestow such rights. Fearful of their own people, they try to gain legitimacy by creating enemies and conflicts abroad.

For democracies, the best weapon against these threats is to showcase the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in self-government. Spy agencies need to be clandestine and opaque in their daily intelligence operations. They are the “eyes and ears” for the nation’s defense. But at critical times, that secrecy bends to democratic fundamentals. The on-camera hearings this week serve as a marvel of freedom’s strengths.

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