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Checks and balances: an uncertain future for the intelligence sector

When James Comey, current director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, publicly released a letter he wrote to Congress twelve days before the presidential election, a precedent was set. The letter stated that then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was going to be put under further investigation after discovery of more emails related to the FBI’s previous investigation of Clinton’s emails.

This kind of public declaration of intent had incredibly real political implications on the country and, with such a close vote, might have skewed the presidential election results in favor of Donald Trump. By using his power, and the privilege that is associated with having access to sensitive material, Comey has pushed this country into an increasingly dangerous area of existence.

The adage “With great power comes great responsibility” is tried but true. Privileged knowledge possessed by those in intelligence sectors can have powerful and savage ramifications if released improperly. Those who possess it cannot act by way of political implication; they must act with integrity and in the interest of public and societal safety.

According to Richard Forno, a professor at UMBC and the director of UMBC’s graduate cybersecurity program, “Politics should never interfere with intelligence operations or analysis. Ever. Intelligence needs to remain objective and provide useful, reality-based understanding of the world to our national leaders. Anything that abuses those treasured national assets, resources, or capabilities to serve domestic political agendas likely will adversely impact national security decision making and ultimately, national security.”

Professor Forno articulates an incredibly important, but seemingly ignored, concept in democratic society. In order to remain a fully realized democracy, the United States must not allow their intelligence agencies to stray from their neutral and nonpartisan ideals, especially if these conflicts all fall within the regime to which those agencies pledge their allegiance.

This particular contrived political and intelligence environment presents a unique problem to students in the US who will one day enter the realm of intelligence work. There are many such students here at UMBC who are studying in fields such as cybersecurity, priming themselves for a career in the intelligence sector.

The futures of these students have been compromised. They may no longer enter a field that held itself with the regard it did when they declared their majors, and they must take new issues into account when making decisions in their field.

Frank Salah, a masters student in cybersecurity at UMBC says, “They [politics and intelligence] are likely to clash. But at the end of the day the president needs them [intelligence agencies] to help keep this country safe, and they need him to step in and take action when necessary.”

Salah’s point hits hard on the genesis of the relationship intelligence and politics should possess. The two must work together to maintain safety at times, but the relationship they hold cannot be abused for gain that does not seek to benefit everyone.

Repeating the Nixon administration’s abuses of intelligence for power and political gain would be not only a foolish mistake for the world, but could be a travesty for international relations and the world’s security.