WASHINGTON – The professionally coy American intelligence agencies may be getting ready to show a little ankle.
A top intelligence official says he wants to pull back the curtain of secrecy to let Americans see more clearly what it is intelligence agencies do, and how they do it.
"We've allowed our detractors to frame the national debate and cast us as the villains," said Donald Kerr, the No. 2 official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "We in the intelligence community are not winning hearts and minds in the U.S. We're not even trying. That's what bothers me most."
It was a wistful call to restore public trust in a community tarnished by its own actions and by allegations of misdeeds that feed on secrecy.
"It's not a shady profession at all," Kerr said at a dinner last week sponsored by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an association for intelligence professionals both in and out of government. "It's one in which the participants take great pride. They've invested careers and lives in it. And we want them to be able to explain that and be appreciated for doing it," Kerr said.
Kerr said excessive secrecy had its place when American intelligence was first organized 60 years ago. But that now works against it.
"We've kept the world out and it's cost us. In trying to maintain (security) we've lost something we never knew we needed until we didn't have it -- the support of a grateful nation," he said.
Kerr said he was thankful there hasn't been a poll asking people about their feelings on the intelligence community. "The number might be depressingly low," he said. "It's because they don't understand what we do."
In fact, there is a poll on the best-known U.S. intelligence agency, and it may not be as bad as Kerr feared.
Asked their views of a dozen federal agencies in December, Americans ranked the CIA ninth in favorability, just ahead of the Transportation Security Agency and just behind the Education Department. In The Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 58 percent said they had either a "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" view of the CIA. Another 12 percent said they'd never heard of the CIA or couldn't rate it -- perhaps a reflection of the curtain of secrecy Kerr wants to draw back.
Kerr said the "slow bleed" of public trust began with revelations in the 1970s of abuses of power by the intelligence agencies.
"In our community it's become a good news day when we aren't in the news," he said.
CIA Director Michael Hayden has accused the media of dragging "anything the CIA does to the darkest corner of the room."
The last few years have provided considerable fodder for negative stories: Waterboarding. Warrantless wiretapping. Secretly spiriting detainees to countries with histories of torture. The destruction of interrogation videotapes. Intelligence failures like Sept. 11 and the unproven charges of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"The question we have to ask now -- and this is something everyone here should help think about -- is how do we get it back? This isn't a matter of a slick PR campaign. People see through slick. It's about being honest and open in a way that doesn't give away sources and methods," Kerr said.
The concern is largely one of morale, said Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence expert at the National Security Archive in Washington.
"It certainly hurts morale and therefore can lead to people departing if they are being unjustly criticized and never recognized for their successes. People in the analytical sphere would like to be known for having gotten things right," Richelson said.
The loss of prestige may have a material effect on intelligence and national security down the line, said Tim Sample, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
In the wake of Sept. 11, hundreds of thousands of Americans have applied to work for intelligence agencies. Intelligence and military spending has soared. But as each year passes without another attack on U.S. territory, Congress and the White House could decide to gut intelligence as they did immediately after the Cold War, Sample said.
"In many ways you need intelligence more in peacetime, to preserve that peace, to make sure that leaders understand when crises are looming," he said.
The intelligence agencies' wounds are in some cases self-inflicted, Richelson said. Taxpayers perceive the excessive secrecy surrounding intelligence budgets and details like the total number of spy agency employees as arrogance. And historical successes are buried in decades-old classified records.