Journalism has a natural affinity to the arts. Plays and movies require less expertise to analyze without being questioned by experts—that is, you don’t need a degree in film studies to write a good article on The Empire Strikes Back. Hyper-specialized tech fields like espionage and intelligence politics are the very opposite. Where art is public, intelligence is private, and many people have little to no understanding about how critical agencies like the CIA or FBI work.
Here is where people like Amy Zegart come in. Her book Spies, Lies, and Algorithms covers intelligence agencies and their related fields in a human, comprehensible light, and in Town Hall’s The History and Future of Espionage in the U.S., she talks with KUOW executive producer and Town Hall regular Ross Reynolds about why that coverage is so important.
An everyday person’s knowledge of espionage is limited to three-letter acronyms, a few controversies, and an endless supply of spy-themed entertainment. Logically, it makes sense: the very concept of it requires secrecy. But can there be too much kept behind closed doors? Zegart argues that we can see a prime example of over-emphasizing secrecy in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s, which she explains showed a pattern of incidents on the part of intelligence agencies due to the lack of public accountability. An agency could essentially double-check its performance without a neutral party’s opinion. Any semblance of oversight was absent until the 1970s, Zegart says, which is when journalists exposed the ongoing issues and pushed policy change.
From my perspective here at TeenTix, journalism is a job of obligation—an obligation to investigate, expose, and hold people accountable. It and espionage have more in common than they seem to, as they both focus on information: who should have it, who should not, and what it is. A primary goal of journalism is to hold powerful agencies accountable. As intelligence groups are especially prone to spiraling out of control, they are an inescapable part of this.
Some argue that today's era suffers from the opposite of what happened in the 50s, that information is now too widely shared. Social media is widespread, to the point where political figures and other powerful individuals will go back-and-forth spontaneously with little formal pretense. Think Elon Musk and Donald Trump. The rapid expansion of tech has also granted more power to the individual, as Zegart argues in her book, allowing anyone with a cell phone to engage in public influence. There is a careful balance between secrecy and open-source to strike on all sides, but no matter the situation, democratic accountability must be a part of the conversation.
Spies, Lies, and Algorithms is a look at a field few dare to talk about, but it’s also an argument about what Zegart calls a “moment of reckoning”. Technology’s major role in espionage means that existing agencies must adapt, or if not, face certain defeat from other groups who will.
In The History and Future of Espionage in the U.S., Reynolds and Zegart focus on a titular topic: what we, the general public, should expect of intelligence agencies in the face of a rapidly changing future. Zegart has no concrete answer, but she asserts that everyone—not just the experts—should be aware of more than fiction’s portrayal of espionage. Accountability is dependent upon the next generation of leaders, which is dependent upon an educated public. Fields like journalism, which aim to spread knowledge and combat misinformation, aren’t just an addition to intelligence, tech, and politics; they’re an integral part of it.