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Russian Hack Adds To Quandary: How To Keep National Secrets In An Open Society

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. So as we just heard, there are cases when the government wants access to more information. The government also sometimes controls how much information it puts out. And there is this inherent tension in trying to keep national security secrets in an open society. That is what is playing out as the CIA and other spy agencies race to finish a report on Russian hacking. It's due before President Obama leaves office on January 20th. The challenge - how to reveal what facts they know without revealing how they know them. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: The task sounds straightforward enough - lay out the evidence that Russia interfered in the election. White House Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco describes it as a lessons learned exercise.

LISA MONACO: The idea here is to capture everything we know in one place and make as much of it public as possible, consistent with national security and protecting sources and methods.

KELLY: And there's the rub, how to protect sources and methods in Russia, one of the most hostile environments for American spies. We put a question along these lines to CIA Director John Brennan.

Just saying, hey, we're the CIA, trust us doesn't cut it in 2016. People want to see the evidence for themselves. How much will you be able to make public of what you know?

JOHN BRENNAN: I believe that this administration is going to try to inform the American people as much as possible about what happened.

KELLY: But Brennan's job is to ensure that clandestine intelligence continues to flow.

BRENNAN: It's always a balance when you need to go out publicly with information, but at the same time protect that which needs to be protected.

KELLY: What needs to be protected includes technical capabilities that may have taken years and millions of dollars to develop, think listening devices, cyber spyware. Steve Hall retired from the CIA in 2015 after three decades running Russian operations. He frames the challenge this way.

STEVE HALL: When you start asking questions like, well, forensically, you know, how can you prove or how can you be sure that this is Russia or this is Putin or this is the Kremlin? You start revealing, well, you know, this is this is what we have, this is what we know. And the Russians are very good at determining, OK, well, if they know that then they must have gotten it this way.

KELLY: Hall says the stakes are even higher when dealing with human sources.

HALL: Having been a case officer for 30 years, there have been a number of times when you sit down across from a human asset - a spy who you've recruited - by saying, yes, we can protect you, and have them look at you in the eye and say, OK, no seriously, this is really sensitive stuff. Can you guarantee me that myself or my family will not be executed or suffer some horrific fate because maybe one of your politicians wants to make this too public?

KELLY: This is Hall's first formal interview. He comes from an institution that by instinct values discretion, closed lips. Hall says that's even more important when dealing with Russia than it would be if the task at hand were building a public case against, say, ISIS.

HALL: There's been no ISIS penetration of CIA or the U.S. intelligence community. They haven't recruited spies inside of CIA or NSA. The Russians, on the other hand, have.

KELLY: Which prompts the CIA and the National Security Agency to practice great caution. Hall says even two CIA officers sitting right next to each other often don't know who the other's sources are. Imagine then the furious writing and rewriting underway this very moment as U.S. spy agencies prepare to lay out evidence before the world on what they know about Russia's cyber activities.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.