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Rethinking Intelligence: Interview with Clark Kent Ervin

Clark Kent Ervin is Director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program. He previously served as the Inspector General to the State Department from 2001 to 2003, and as the first Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security from January 2003 until December 2004.

Published: July 14, 2014

Inter­view Tran­script

Clark Kent Ervin is Director of the Aspen Insti­tute’s Home­land Secur­ity Program. He previ­ously served as the Inspector General to the State Depart­ment from 2001 to 2003, and as the first Inspector General of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity from Janu­ary 2003 until Decem­ber 2004. From 2008 through 2011 he served on the Commis­sion on Wartime Contract­ing in Iraq and Afgh­anistan. He is the author of Open Target: Where Amer­ica is Vulner­able to Attack (Palgrave Macmil­lan, 2006).

Mike German, a Fellow at the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, inter­viewed Dani­elle Brian on July 14, 2014. The follow­ing is an edited tran­script of that inter­view.


Q: Hi, my name is Mike German. I’m a fellow with the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and today I’m with Clark Kent Ervin who was the Inspector General of the U.S. State Depart­ment. He was the first Inspector General at the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity and served on the wartime commis­sion invest­ig­at­ing corrup­tion and fraud in contract­ing in the war zones. You’re also the author of Open Target: Where Amer­ica is Vulner­able to Attack, which is writ­ten after your time as the Inspector General of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity. And you quote Secret­ary Colin Powell during your swear­ing in cere­mony where he said, "If our foreign policy is to be sustained and if it is to be success­ful around the world, it has to have the trust of the Amer­ican people.” The work of the Inspector General contrib­utes invari­ably to build­ing that crucial public trust. How import­ant is inde­pend­ent over­sight to the success of the national secur­ity mission?

ERVIN: I think it’s abso­lutely crit­ical Mike. There’s no ques­tion, but that the work of the Inspector General, the work of G.A.O., the Congres­sional invest­ig­at­ive and audit­ing arm of the work of the Congres­sional over­sight commit­tees, the work of the press. These four insti­tu­tions are crit­ical to ensur­ing that the men and women who are entrus­ted with secur­ing the United States do things within the law and within the confines of our secur­ity — not just our secur­ity but also our civil rights and our civil liber­ties. And I think there has been a lot of concern, need­less to say, in recent years about whether the govern­ment has crossed the line. And there would be less concern I think, on the part of the Amer­ican people, if they were convinced that over­sight was as vigor­ous as it possibly can be with regard to secur­ity issues.

Q: And despite the neces­sity of it to the success of the mission, these agen­cies tend to resist that kind of aggress­ive over­sight. How did that impact your abil­ity to identify prob­lems and get them remedied?

ERVIN: Right. Well I write in the book about the contrast really, the very clear, almost black and white contrast, between how I was received at the State Depart­ment as Inspector General and how I was received at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity by the senior manage­ment there. Gener­ally speak­ing, of course there are always excep­tions, but gener­ally speak­ing, thanks to Secret­ary Powell’s lead­er­ship — and I should under­score that it really starts at the top — the signal that the Secret­ary General Powell sent in that public swear­ing in cere­mony where he made it clear that he himself and through him, the Pres­id­ent, thought that over­sight was crit­ic­ally import­ant. And as you say that over­sight was not just import­ant on its own, but import­ant to the success of the foreign policy mission of the United States commu­nic­ated that message like­wise to every­body in the build­ing. And so as a consequence of that, gener­ally speak­ing, I’d say 90% of the time or there­abouts I had the full cooper­a­tion of the rest of the manage­ment and those report­ing to manage­ment in the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity and carry­ing out the inspec­tions and the audits and the invest­ig­a­tions and very sens­it­ive foreign policy arenas that I needed to carry out in my job as Inspector General of the State Depart­ment. By way of contrast, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, the impres­sion that Secret­ary Ridge had and others on his lead­er­ship team, was that I was being an antag­on­ist; that these were personal criti­cisms that I and my team were making of them and their stew­ard­ship of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity. Noth­ing could have been farther from the truth. Like­wise, my job as Inspector General of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, just as my job at State at the time, was to object­ively, inde­pend­ently, in a non-polit­ical, non-partisan fash­ion, assess how well or how badly actu­ally the depart­ment is doing in carry­ing out its crit­ical part of the national secur­ity mission. To be fair, I think it is a natural part of human nature for people to resist criti­cism of any kind, and certainly national secur­ity agen­cies are national secur­ity agen­cies, and because that’s the case they are more in the cross hairs of the Congress, they are more in the cross hairs of the Amer­ican people because of the stakes than any other kind of govern­ment entity in our system. And so that’s an addi­tional reason why they were partic­u­larly resist­ant to criti­cism. But that’s an explan­a­tion, it’s not an excuse and it’s abso­lutely crit­ical that there be due over­sight because other­wise we have the kinds of abuses we’ve seen in recent years. And it’s not just the abuses as bad as that is, but as a consequence of those abuses there is less public trust in govern­ment and less will­ing­ness on the part of the public to do their part of the bargain. It is the govern­ment’s job to secure us. It’s the Amer­ican peoples’ job to support the govern­ment in carry­ing out that very diffi­cult work and appre­ci­at­ing the diffi­culty that they, the govern­ment, have in walk­ing this very fine line between secur­ity and liberty.

Q: And you mention all of our respons­ib­il­ity and the way that our govern­ment is struc­tured. It sets up compet­ing branches that check and balance one another.

ERVIN: Purposely.

Q: Purposely because we determ­ined, when our coun­try was foun­ded, that that was the way to make a more effect­ive and more account­able govern­ment. How would you eval­u­ate Congres­sional over­sight of the Home­land Secur­ity and national secur­ity agen­cies?

ERVIN: Gener­ally posit­ively. Certainly the armed services commit­tees, House and Senate, Foreign Rela­tions commit­tees, House and Senate Intel­li­gence commit­tees, House and Senate. Gener­ally speak­ing, I think that those commit­tees have done a very good job of over­see­ing their respect­ive parts of the national secur­ity appar­atus in the United States. Gener­ally speak­ing, those commit­tees stand in sharp contrast over the years, and in partic­u­larly sharp contrast to recent years, with regard to the very, very toxic partis­an­ship that we see in other kinds of commit­tees in the Congress. Gener­ally speak­ing, those commit­tees worked in a seam­less bipar­tisan, nonpolit­ical fash­ion to exer­cise due over­sight over their, as I say, respect­ive pieces of the appar­atus. I would say that that’s true also of the House and Senate Home­land Secur­ity commit­tees. They like­wise, are non-partisan, object­ive, very, very dili­gent, very able people who had born into these very complic­ated home­land secur­ity issues, gotten up to speed about their respect­ive parts of it and provided, gener­ally speak­ing, I think, what is help­ful, construct­ive coun­sel and criti­cism on occa­sion to the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity.

That said, the one foot­note excep­tion I would add for the home­land secur­ity over­sight commit­tees in the House and Senate is that — and the lead­ers of those commit­tees and the members of those commit­tees would be the first to agree with what I’m about to say — their effect­ive­ness is hampered by the fact that as you know, juris­dic­tion with regard to the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity is not in contrast to those other commit­tees concen­trated just on those two commit­tees; but instead, in large part because of the diffuse mission of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, some­thing like a hundred or so differ­ent commit­tees and sub-commit­tees claim some part of the juris­dic­tion-over­sight juris­dic­tion over the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity.

That presents a huge chal­lenge to the Secret­ary and to the other lead­er­ship of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity  prepar­ing for those hear­ings, respond­ing to inform­a­tion requests. It detracts from the mission. It’s not just a time suck, but also there can be and there have been examples of conflict­ing mandates being given to the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity because of the pleth­ora of commit­tees involved in it. So, you know, it was the one remain­ing recom­mend­a­tion of the 9/11 Commis­sion all these many years later — exactly a decade after the commis­sion — that there be consol­id­a­tion of congres­sional over­sight of Home­land Secur­ity in the same way that there is over DOD, the intel­li­gence community in the State Depart­ment. That’s yet to happen in Congress. And that I should add it’s a bipar­tisan thing. It was pushed in the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion consol­id­ated, pushed in the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion consol­id­ated. And the Congress has been Repub­lican hands and Demo­cratic hands and yet, it has yet to be done.

Q: And you mention in your answer “partis­an­ship.” Do you see that as some­thing that’s getting worse?  

ERVIN: I do see partis­an­ship gener­ally speak­ing getting worse on the domestic side. There is no ques­tion about that. I don’t see a lot of partis­an­ship with regard to home­land secur­ity issues, with regard to terror­ism issues. There has been a lot of criti­cism of course of the Obama Admin­is­tra­tion on foreign policy and national secur­ity gener­ally speak­ing. I agree with some of that criti­cism frankly, but I think the partis­an­ship with regard to that criti­cism is much, much less than it is with regard to domestic affairs. And that’s as it should be.

Q:  Right. So, for the lead­er­ship of these Congres­sional Over­sight Commit­tees, you would think that the Inspector General is their best friend: their eyes and ears within the agency to bring out and identify prob­lems that need to be correc­ted. But you didn’t have that exper­i­ence.

ERVIN: Actu­ally, you know I did.

Q: Oh, did you?

ERVIN: Gener­ally speak­ing, yes, I did not always have the cooper­a­tion of the depart­ment lead­er­ship at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, whereas gener­ally speak­ing I did at the State Depart­ment. But almost invari­ably I’m really hard pressed to think of a counter example. I did have the cooper­a­tion and full support of both Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats on the commit­tees that I worked with at both at State and at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity. I remem­ber for example work­ing very, very closely-certainly at State, and I think like­wise at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity with Senator Grass­ley, a Repub­lican. I was a Bush Admin­is­tra­tion appointee, and both those slots; he was a Repub­lican and of course, essen­tially to cooper­ate with me on occa­sion meant being like­wise just as I was being crit­ical of the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion; yet he was a stal­wart supporter in that regard. So no, I think the congres­sional cooper­a­tion that I had was really quite sound in both slots.

Q: And how about on the Home­land Secur­ity commit­tees?

ERVIN: On the Home­land Secur­ity commit­tees like­wise. I formed very, very close-at the time when I was there, I believe that repres­ent­at­ive Peter King (R-NY) was the Chair of the commit­tee, I believe that’s right and Benny Thompson was then and remains the rank­ing member of the commit­tee now that the Chair is Michael McCall. He’s still the rank­ing member. And I had his cooper­a­tion then. He’s been stal­wart on these issues.

Q: Great. How import­ant is public aware­ness when you’re an Inspector General? Obvi­ously you did a laud­able job of making a lot of your reports public, or at least as much of them as possible,  in gener­at­ing the public support neces­sary to demand reform.

ERVIN: It’s abso­lutely crit­ical, and that is one of the issues that an Inspector General has to wrestle with and that is to what degree, if at all, should he or she turn to the press to serve as an ally in the effort to make sure that the Congress and the public are fully aware of what it is the Inspector General is uncov­er­ing. I made a point on my very first day as State Depart­ment Inspector General to cultiv­ate the press. I got to know the key report­ers who were cover­ing the depart­ment and there­fore the office of Inspector General. I never of course would viol­ate any of the laws govern­ing clas­si­fic­a­tion, never disclose any clas­si­fied inform­a­tion.

Q: Sure.

ERVIN: But I was very proact­ive in reach­ing out to them to make sure that they were aware of what we were find­ing, that our reports had been issued because I found, all too often unfor­tu­nately, espe­cially at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, that there was a tele­vi­sion story about or a major news­pa­per — New York TimesWash­ing­ton PostWall Street Journal —  story about a report that we had done that then you had the full atten­tion of the depart­ment and the full commit­ment of the depart­ment, at least rhet­or­ic­ally to fix the prob­lem. But for that, all too often in the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity’s case, I would­n’t have that cooper­a­tion.

Q: Okay. Speak­ing specific­ally about intel­li­gence, in your book you say, “Our intel­li­gence in law enforce­ment agen­cies are shar­ing inform­a­tion and cooper­at­ing with each other as never before. Yet bottle­necks, insti­tu­tional resist­ance, bureau­cratic bungling and tech­no­lo­gical chal­lenges to collect­ing, analyz­ing and using inform­a­tion that can detect and foil another terror­ist attack are made.” Recently we’ve seen reports by the Depart­ment of Justice Inspector General and the House Home­land Secur­ity commit­tee that show some fail­ures, for lack of a better word, regard­ing the Boston Mara­thon bomb­ing, that would seem to suggest that some of this dysfunc­tion in the intel­li­gence community remains because the systems that were set up to receive warn­ing to get inform­a­tion about travel all work. And yet there wasn’t the response that we would hope would be there.

ERVIN: Right.

Q: How do you see the devel­op­ment of this intel­li­gence network? You know, because now the intel­li­gence community is much larger as you said, it often national secur­ity is home­land secur­ity and yet they’re not neces­sar­ily always integ­rated as well as they should.

ERVIN: I guess how I would respond is to say that it’s a lot better. There’s no ques­tion, but as you know there was a wall, a meta­phor­ical wall, between the vari­ous parts of our govern­ment between and among agen­cies prevent­ing them from shar­ing inform­a­tion before 9/11 and that’s one of the reas­ons why we failed to anti­cip­ate that attack and respond to it adequately on the day. There has been a sea change in that regard. Gener­ally speak­ing, there is a huge push as you know to cooper­ate, to share inform­a­tion, and so it’s gotten better. But you could write that at any time, it will always be the case that despite advances, there will still be some bureau­cratic resist­ance, there will still be some tech­no­lo­gical chal­lenges. That’s kind of the nature of the beast. There will always be bureau­cratic obstacles, because at the end of the day, bureau­cra­cies are people and that’s a core part of human nature and a couple of things about tech­no­logy. Tech­no­logy is diffi­cult. It evolves very, very rapidly. The govern­ment evolves, when it evolves at all, very, very slowly. So that’s a peren­nial prob­lem. The issue is, is it moving in the right traject­ory? One thing I would add by way of foot­note is that the back­lash. And I know we’re going to talk about this, the back­lash against the revel­a­tions uncovered by Snowden. It may have a chilling effect on the shar­ing of inform­a­tion, so in the same way that gener­ally speak­ing we Amer­ic­ans have this — I’ve called it a whipsaw effect — between hysteria in the imme­di­ate after­math of 9/11 and in the imme­di­ate after­math of plots that are foiled, and compla­cency. It’s the same thing we have that on occa­sions, a whipsaw between a tend­ency not to share inform­a­tion at all and a tend­ency to share inform­a­tion so much that it becomes a prob­lem in and of itself. So these are very diffi­cult issues to work through.

Q: Okay. One of the prob­lems that you iden­ti­fied is that the intel­li­gence home­land secur­ity national secur­ity agen­cies don’t eval­u­ate whether the programs that they have are actu­ally effect­ive.

ERVIN: Right.

Q: So how can the Amer­ican people who are often asked to sacri­fice their privacy in the name of national secur­ity programs know that these programs are effect­ive if the agen­cies don’t even know?

ERVIN: Right. Well that’s a very good ques­tion. I think the answer is there should be a multi-agency, multi-actor eval­u­ation process with regard to all of these programs or at least the most import­ant programs. And by that I mean that as you said, the agency itself should continu­ally eval­u­ate the effect­ive­ness of coun­terter­ror­ism programs, national secur­ity programs. The agency should do that as a prior­ity matter. But secondly, there are Inspect­ors General. That’s what they do. That’s in a nutshell what the whole point of an Inspector General is. It’s what G.A.O. is supposed to do. That’s what congres­sional over­sight is supposed to do. That’s what the press is supposed to do. That’s what outside advocacy groups like POGO, Project on Govern­ment Over­sight. Like the ACLU are supposed to do. And so, there is no short­age of actors in the Amer­ican polit­ical govern­mental system designed to do that. And a vari­ety of those actors do do that on a regu­lar basis. I think that the prob­lem — and there are a number of prob­lems — but one of the key prob­lems is that when the Inspector General calls atten­tion to a prob­lem, when G.A.O. does, when congres­sional commit­tees does, all too often there is not enough atten­tion paid to that until there’s a crisis. And a crisis gets on the radar screen, gener­ally speak­ing, when there is intense press interest, which gets back to my early argu­ment about how import­ant it is I think for over­sight bodies to enlist the press. For example, the latest example of course is the VA scan­dal, which domin­ated the head­lines for weeks, start­ing about a month or six weeks ago or so. How did that get to be a scan­dal? It got to be a scan­dal because some very intrepid report­ers at CNN made that a front page meta­phor­ic­ally story for weeks. But the Inspector Gener­al’s office, we subsequently learned, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn this, for years had poin­ted to precisely these prob­lems. It’s just that congres­sional commit­tees hadn’t paid much atten­tion to it, and certainly the Veter­ans Admin­is­tra­tion, the agency hadn’t paid much atten­tion to it. If all of these internal over­sight effic­acy assess­ments — for want of a better term — compon­ents of agen­cies worked as they should, and if these other outside external over­sight bodies worked as they should, and if due atten­tion were paid to it by the Congress, by the Amer­ican people, then we would jettison programs that are inef­fect­ive and we would enhance programs that have proved to be effect­ive.

Q: And one of the prob­lems with oper­at­ing in that crisis envir­on­ment is there’s often an imper­at­ive that you acknow­ledge and to do some­thing.

ERVIN: Yes.

Q: You mention the creation of the AHS without really eval­u­at­ing whether that some­thing is actu­ally going to help.

ERVIN: Precisely.

Q: Or after you’ve done it does help.

ERVIN: Yes.

Q: How much does the imper­at­ive to do some­thing, to solve a short term prob­lem, impact our abil­ity to reach our long term goals?

ERVIN: A lot. That too is part of human nature, and we Amer­ic­ans —  I talked in the book also about kind of the nature of the Amer­ican people. And you know I’m not a psychi­at­rist or a psycho­lo­gist but there’s a bit of pop psycho­logy in what I writebut it’s gener­ally a good trait that we want to do some­thing. We want to get some­thing done. There’s a crisis we want to respond to it and that’s a good thing. But, as you said, the cost of the crisis nature of the atmo­sphere at that point, there’s such an urgency to act that there that one does­n’t feel as though he, she, the insti­tu­tion has suffi­cient time to really think it through and to plan it out.

You know, I’m sure you’ve read these reports about exactly how the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity was cobbled together in 2003; but liter­ally a hand­ful of guys — I think it was all guys, I know a few of them. Andy Card was one of them, then the White House Chief of Staff got together, you know, over several sessions in a small confer­ence room to say, “You know, this compon­ent of this agency’s in, this compon­ent of this agency is out.” It was just like that, and that’s no way to run a rail­road. Noth­ing is complic­ated and as import­ant as the secur­ity of the United States.

Q: And even some very import­ant issues like the decision to go to war. You quote in your book, former Congress­man and CIA Director Porter Goss where he said the Iraq War, “while not a cause of extrem­ism has become a cause for extrem­ists.” You know espe­cially in such a crit­ical decision making, how do Amer­ic­ans assess whether these choices that are being made are actu­ally help­ing improve secur­ity?

ERVIN: Right.

Q: Espe­cially over time.

ERVIN: Well again that’s precisely why a vigor­ous and essen­tially unfettered press is so crit­ical. That’s why effect­ive nonpar­tisan, apolit­ical congres­sional over­sight’s so import­ant. That’s why G.A.O. over­sight’s import­ant, that’s why the Inspector General over­sight’s import­ant. It all goes back to that, it seems to me.

Q: And… you had mentioned that for example the VA’s scheme that the Inspector General had done a number of reports. In your exper­i­ence, is Congress very good at look­ing back at those reports for some of the recom­mend­a­tions, rather than trying to come up with some­thing imme­di­ate for that?

ERVIN: No, that’s a very good point. Yeah, one of the pet peeves of Inspect­ors General, and I know this is true for G.A.O. as well, is that as you implied there are gener­ally scores, if not hundreds and perhaps even thou­sands, depend­ing on the agency we’re talk­ing about of unim­ple­men­ted Inspector General recom­mend­a­tions over time. That was one of my huge prob­lems when I arrived at the State Depart­ment trying to get that number down to a manage­able number of those that had not yet been imple­men­ted. And so gener­ally no, the Congress does not look back at that. Gener­ally speak­ing it is a crisis-anim­ated, press-driven process.

Q: And part of the prob­lem for Amer­ic­ans, and you mentioned the Snowden leaks, you know, we’ve been involved in this vigor­ous debate about the proper scope of intel­li­gence programs, partic­u­larly weigh­ing that privacy versus secur­ity. But you make a point in the book that it’s import­ant to preserve our civil liber­ties and in fact if we don’t, we’re actu­ally hand­ing a victory to our enemies.

ERVIN: That’s right. That’s right. But you know I want to stress, and I think I stressed this in the book, you know it’s a very, very fine line to walk. There’s no ques­tion about that, and certainly one should never viol­ate our clas­si­fic­a­tion laws. That’s a crit­ical thing, and I think there’s no ques­tion about that in the Snowden case, that that was done. And I think that frankly, person­ally, I think there has been a huge comprom­ise in national secur­ity as a result of that. And further, I think it is so lessened in the Amer­ican peoples’ confid­ence in their govern­ment now, that the govern­ment’s hand is tied behind its back to a consid­er­able degree all these many years after 9/11, at a time when there is no end of secur­ity threats facing the coun­try both from terror­ists and also from tradi­tional nation-state actors. So I think this time in which we’re living and sitting right now is an espe­cially peril­ous one and I’m very concerned about it.

Q: How much is secrecy a prob­lem that, you know with these leaks obvi­ously inside and trying to weigh where that line was had been debated for a decade or more and yet when the Amer­ican public finally hears about it, it creates a contro­versy that creates that crisis situ­ation that creates the prob­lems for our future devel­op­ment. How much does secrecy create a prob­lem?

ERVIN: That’s a very import­ant ques­tion and I’ve thought long and hard about that, and here is my answer to it, it’s not perhaps not the greatest answer, but it’s the best answer that I can think of, and that is that all too often I found as Inspector General, and I think other Inspect­ors General would agree with this and G.A.O., Congress, the press would agree with [that] — all too often, things are kept secret in our govern­ment. Repub­lican Admin­is­tra­tions, Demo­cratic Admin­is­tra­tions. Not because making it public would comprom­ise the secur­ity of the United States, but instead because making it public would embar­rass the admin­is­tra­tion. It would embar­rass the govern­ment. There’s been some screw up or there’s been some ways to inef­fi­ciency, some finan­cial abuse. Happens all the time. Happens every­day, it’s happen­ing right now as we sit here. That’s one thing. On the other extreme of the pendu­lum is secrecy that is designed to prevent clas­si­fied inform­a­tion from wind­ing up in the hands of our enemies. It would be perfectly fine if it were possible to share that with the Amer­ican people and keep it away from terror­ists and other enemies, but as a prac­tical matter you can’t do that. I am for the kind of secrecy at that end of the pendu­lum as opposed to the secrecy that is inten­ded just to avoid embar­rass­ment; and to me the line is always clear between the two. I’ve never in my four years as an Inspector General, in my three years added to that as a member of the contract­ing commis­sion; so you know, you can argue that I’ve had seven years, nearly a decade of intens­ive, really full time over­sight of not just the govern­ment gener­ally, but the national secur­ity portion of the govern­ment and I’ve never seen an example of it be unclear what kind of secrecy rationale is an issue.

Q: And you’ve writ­ten in your book and spoken about the pres­sures, direct pres­sure some­times as Inspector General not to report things. So you can imagine as an employee of one of these agen­cies the type of pres­sure not to report prob­lems, even to the Inspector General.

ERVIN: Yes.

Q: The intel­li­gence agen­cies are exemp­ted from the Whis­tleblower Protec­tion Act. Do you think that there are enough protec­tions for intel­li­gence agency employ­ees so that they can feel comfort­able report­ing through the proper chan­nels rather than leak­ing to the press?

ERVIN: Well, you know, I’m concerned about it. I don’t purport to be an expert in the vari­ous partic­u­lar provi­sions of the intel­li­gence community that might provide addi­tional protec­tions if any, to employ­ees beyond what there is. But the notion of that gener­ally speak­ing, whis­tleblower protec­tions, are not avail­able to members of the intel­li­gence community whereas they are else­where troubles me. And I would urge the relev­ant congres­sional over­sight commit­tees to do some­thing about that. Again, it’s clear what kind of prob­lem we’re talk­ing about. It’s one thing to disagree with the program as a matter of policy. It’s quite another thing to see ways  abuse and crimin­al­ity occur and not feel empowered to report that because of concern about your own, the consequences, the personal consequences to you and your family if you do so.

Q: And one of the things that the pres­id­ent’s review group look­ing at the NSA programs talked about, which I think was an import­ant part of the debate that we haven’t really been talk­ing about, is that when we talk about secur­ity, we mean not just secur­ity from outside threats but secur­ity from an unwar­ran­ted govern­ment intru­sion into your private life. Because of all the secrecy and because of the import­ant issues that are involved, how do we make sure that — and frankly because of the history, there’s a long history of intel­li­gence author­it­ies being abused to suppress polit­ical activ­ity — how can we set up a mech­an­ism or is there a mech­an­ism to make sure that there isn’t in that closed system a tend­ency to viol­ate rights again?

ERVIN: Right. My thoughts there are that it really matters a lot whom you have in key slots. It matters a lot whom you have in as an Inspector General espe­cially, and also members of these congres­sional over­sight commit­tees. And what I mean by that is this: There are basic­ally two kinds of Inspect­ors General, and that is the kind who I strive to be; that is you share the polit­ics and the ideo­logy of the pres­id­ent of the admin­is­tra­tion that appoin­ted you, other­wise you would­n’t been appoin­ted. But once you’re you’re nomin­ated, confirmed by the Senate and take up the job, then you leave your polit­ics and your ideo­logy at the door and you call things as you see them. If you have that kind of person as the Inspector General, someone who recog­nizes that by stat­ute he or she is supposed to be inde­pend­ent and object­ive, then the Amer­ican people can be assured that there will be due trans­par­ency with regard to his or her over­sight of the depart­ment. There are Inspect­ors General, regret­tably in my judg­ment, who regard them­selves as employ­ees of the agency, employ­ees of the Secret­ary or agency head in the same way that every­body else in the agency is an employee essen­tially of the Secret­ary or agency head. And in that instance, the public can’t be assured of the objectiv­ity and there­fore value of the work that that Inspector General does. The same is true for congres­sional over­sight commit­tees. It’s to what degree does partis­an­ship and polit­ics figure into the over­sight that that partic­u­lar member, that partic­u­lar commit­tee exer­cises over the relev­ant agency. You know I think the gold stand­ard in our coun­try for congres­sional over­sight of course is the Water­gate commit­tees, in that as Repub­lic­ans essen­tially I’m exag­ger­at­ing a little bit to make the point, but it was largely Senator Baker who just passed away recently who — and South­ern Demo­crats who gener­ally, like Senator Ervin, who are gener­ally support­ive of the Nixon Admin­is­tra­tion on domestic policy at least — who were the strongest in advoc­at­ing for getting to the truth in that matter. All too often we’ve fallen away from that. As I said, less on the national secur­ity side and the domestic side, but to some degree the national secur­ity side too.

Q: One of the inter­est­ing things with the Snowden leaks is that you know, when there was a public outcry about the scope of these programs, some­what the people who were respons­ible for over­sight became the biggest advoc­ates of those programs, partly because it’s their own legacy of over­sight that is being chal­lenged. Does that have an effect with the sort of crisis mode that there is, I guess capture would be the biggest—

ERVIN: Circ­ling the negat­ive.

Q: The biggest word that they feel, that rather than inde­pend­ent over­seers they’re actu­ally advoc­ates for the intel­li­gence community.

ERVIN: Yes, that can happen. You know I must say that I haven’t seen a lot of that person­ally in response to the Snowden revel­a­tions. Gener­ally speak­ing, my percep­tion is those members who have been the fiercest back­ers of the intel­li­gence community after the revel­a­tions were gener­ally support­ing the intel­li­gence community before them. That’s my percep­tion.

Q: Okay. In addi­tion, when there’s inef­fect­ive over­sight, there is the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse. And with the U.S. wartime commis­sion on contract­ing, you found signi­fic­ant waste and abuse in the war zones, some­where between $31 and $60 billion wasted. Large sum of money. How does that affect the effect­ive­ness of the mission?

ERVIN: Well it affects it hugely. For example, we’re seeing Iraq implode before our very eyes. Need­less to say, you know, I think we spent some­thing like $25 billion alone to train the Iraqi army and we’ve seen that it’s essen­tially collapsed over the last few weeks in response to a very determ­ined threat from ISIS and a number of other affil­i­ated Al Qaeda-like groups. And that just shows that the billions we spent specific­ally on that part of the war — that’s to say noth­ing of the other parts of the war effort that we spent Iraq were for naught — and that’s because so much of the money was ill-planned, ill spent, not due over­sight given over to it. So liter­ally people are dying in Iraq today because the money that we spent to try to prevent that went awry. So these are life and death issues and our milit­ary pres­ence is going to end for all prac­tical purposes, even if we leave behind a few resid­ual troops. It’s going to end for all prac­tical purposes at the end of this year in Afgh­anistan. And there is great concern, as you know, that the very same thing will happen there. And we poin­ted to all of these issues as you say, during the course of the commis­sion, and here we are. So these are crit­ical life and death matters, and further­more I guess the other thing that I under­score is that it’s not as if we’re now and have been for all these many years more than a decade wast­ing these money in these two partic­u­lar war theat­ers and around the world with regard to the war on terror­ism and national secur­ity chal­lenges that we face. But we’re doing so now at a time of great fiscal chal­lenges. And so, I wrote in the book, and I wrote the book in 2006, so it’s nearly a decade ago — every dollar wasted is a dollar that could have been spent to make Amer­ica more secure. It’s even more so now than it was then at the time I wrote that book. Relat­ively speak­ing, Amer­ica was flush. We’re anything but flush now and so we’ve got to be smarter about how we spend our neces­sar­ily limited dollars to make the most of them and to make sure that the programs that we invest in are ones that are effect­ive and effi­ciently run.

Q: And one of the shock­ing things I found in read­ing that that some of the money spent for contract­ors was then spent for protec­tion actu­ally provid­ing funds to the insur­gents and the warlords that were fight­ing U.S. troops.

ERVIN: Abso­lutely. And further­more that happened in some cases know­ingly. Our contract­ing officers, our people in DOD, State depart­ment USAID were aware of that, so that’s really shock­ing.

Q: And with internal control so weak that that type of thing can happen is incred­ibly danger­ous for our troops on the ground, how can we be sure that other areas of liber­ties, privacy, even just the effect­ive­ness of the agen­cies isn’t being under­mined by this lack of internal controls.

ERVIN: We can’t be. There’s because of that, there’s every reason to be suspi­cious about whether what we don’t know is even more troub­ling, more concern­ing than what we do know.

Q: And obvi­ously all Amer­ic­ans want these agen­cies to oper­ate at peak effi­ciency and effect­ive­ness.

ERVIN: It’s in their interest.

Q: Exactly. So why is reform so hard?

ERVIN: Reform is hard because people are people. You know this bureau­cratic resist­ance we talked about, the tend­ency of people at the topmost level of govern­ment as I said earlier, to think that any criti­cism of the depart­ment is a personal criti­cism of them. They’re concerned about their repu­ta­tions after they leave govern­ment.  They’re concerned about their career prospect. It’s hard because the Amer­ican peoples’ atten­tion span is very, very, very short. We move from crisis to crisis to crisis. There’s not a lot of sustained atten­tion to this. The news medi­a’s atten­tion is also like­wise atten­u­ated. These are hard, diffi­cult, nitty gritty kind of ques­tions and it requires sustained over­sight on a daily basis and that’s tough, human nature being what it is.

Q: And do you have recom­mend­a­tions for what could make it a little better?

ERVIN: This may sound simplistic, but my recom­mend­a­tion is that the Congress, the press, and the Amer­ican people take the work of Inspect­ors General, the reports that they issue every single day and that are avail­able on their websites, seri­ously. Like­wise the work of the G.A.O., like­wise the work of the Congres­sional commit­tees, because if you don’t, depend­ing on what agency you’re talk­ing about and what issue you’re talk­ing about, the day will come when there will be a crisis that will be front page in the news­pa­per and you know, begin­ning of the news­cast and then every­body will say well why didn’t we know about this? Why is this coming up all of a sudden? And those in the know like I and you will be able to say well  there have been X number of I.G. reports about that, X number of G.A.O. reports, X number of congres­sional over­sight hear­ings about it, and yet nobody paid atten­tion until it was right there in your face on a tele­vi­sion screen, iPad tablet screen, or news­pa­per.

Q: And it is incred­ible going through those reports and your reports partic­u­larly. I think you really deserve a lot of commend­a­tion for — in a very diffi­cult envir­on­ment — when the agency was just being created. If a member of the public was inter­ested in these issues, what would you have him read other than the reports obvi­ously?

ERVIN: Well other than that, you know this may sound really kind of element­ary and simplistic and I guess it is, but I think it’s the right answer, and that is when you talked earlier about our found­ing fath­ers, the genius that they had to conceive of a system that was inten­ded to be and can be and has on occa­sion been at its most effect­ive and its most effi­cient and its most econom­ical because of the checks and balances that are built into our system. Now it’s up to human beings in every gener­a­tion to anim­ate the struc­tures, the struc­ture of govern­ment that’s been created, but the struc­ture of govern­ment that was created if we live up to it, if we anim­ate it, is ideal. And so, what that means is that the respons­ib­il­ity of each indi­vidual is to be an informed citizen, to be an enlightened citizen. And so that’s a long-winded way of saying it. I think the addi­tional thing that the aver­age citizen should do is to become informed. It is shock­ing just how ignor­ant the aver­age Amer­ican is about what’s going on in his or her coun­try; what’s going on in his or her govern­ment. And that means that you’ve got to take an active interest in it. You got to read one of the best news­pa­pers in the coun­try, The New York TimesThe Wash­ing­ton PostThe Wall Street Journal, because it’s those papers really that cover news of national and inter­na­tional signi­fic­ance — with no affront inten­ded for local news­pa­pers, but that’s just not their focus and there’s a role for local papers. But talk­ing about national papers and national news and inter­na­tional news now. There is, thanks to the web, blogs and social media, there is access to more inform­a­tion than ever before, that’s for sure, and that’s a good thing. The down­side of that is there isn’t the filter that there used to be provided by very reput­able organs like The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Wall Street Journal because things that you read in the blogo­sphere and social media are not all the same level of accur­acy. But gener­ally speak­ing, certainly the means are avail­able to those citizens who want to take advant­age of those means to inform them­selves. And unless and until they inform them­selves, they will be in the dark about what the govern­ment is doing and the govern­ment will be less effect­ive than it can be because the govern­ment needs the over­sight not just to these insti­tu­tions but also of the aver­age Amer­ican if it’s to do the right thing, because at the end of the day we have a Demo­cratic system which means people get elec­ted accord­ing to the will of the people.

Q: And obvi­ously private groups who help compile and explain that inform­a­tion like the Aspen Insti­tute where you’re Director of Home­land Secur­ity.

ERVIN: And the ACLU and POGO and organ­iz­a­tions on right as well. It’s all part of the genius of our system.

Q: Great. Well thanks very much for being with me.

ERVIN: Thank you Mike.