The Edward Snowden leak affected the Pentagon's relationship with the tech industry, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in an exclusive interview with VICE News, saying the former NSA contractor's disclosures created "a barrier of suspicion" that has made it more challenging to recruit the top talent necessary to maintain the US military's technological advantage over other countries.
Speaking with VICE founder Shane Smith ahead of a visit to Silicon Valley last month, Carter discussed a range of issues related to the Snowden affair. The first sitting Defense Secretary to visit Silicon Valley in more than 20 years, Carter's trip was part of a broader Department of Defense (DoD) effort to mend a relationship with the tech industry frayed by the revelations about extensive government surveillance.
Though Snowden primarily leaked documents related to the NSA, the organization reports to the Secretary of Defense, and Carter suggested that the DoD's relationship with Silicon Valley was negatively impacted by the broader debates about intelligence and surveillance.
"The Snowden disclosures put people in a bad position," Carter said. Explaining the purpose of his outreach to Silicon Vally, he added, "We need to emphasize a couple of things about how we conduct ourselves. One is that we only do things that are lawful and appropriate. Second, our whole purpose is to protect people and facilitate internet commerce."
While debates about the broad data-gathering activities of the US government have largely focused on counterterrorism, Carter made several references to the role intelligence programs play in protecting commerce and combatting intellectual property theft. Online intellectual property theft can cover a wide range of actions, from illegal movie downloads to full-scale industrial espionage and the theft of highly sensitive data, including detailed engineering plans for advanced combat aircraft.
Watch Part 4 of the VICE News interview with Ashton Carter:
Smith noted that most Americans probably accept some amount of lawful surveillance for defense and security reasons, but many are concerned that the NSA's programs have crossed the line, becoming too invasive and perhaps unconstitutional.
"One of the definitions of a police state is having the police watch you at all times, knowing what you're doing at all times," Smith said.
"Sure, that's why we have to do this… very carefully," Carter responded. "We need to behave in such a way, but also be understood to behave in such a way, that we're not trying get into anybody's business or thoughts."
Carter suggested that Congressional and judicial oversight are the best ways to continue the secret data collection programs while convincing the American people that the programs are not only appropriate, but also vital to protecting national security and safeguarding the health of the US economy.
'We can't tell people everything we're doing and still protect them.'
"We can't tell people everything we're doing and still protect them," Carter said. "That's why we have a Congress; that's why we have laws and courts and so forth, so they can check on us and tell the American people, 'This was done in a way that you would feel comfortable with.'"
But relying on Congress to win the public's trust has its own complications. According to polling by Gallup, public confidence in Congress is at an all-time low, with just 7 percent of Americans saying they "have 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of confidence in Congress as an American institution."
It's also unclear whether making the case to the public through the media will be effective. Confidence in media is at an all-time low as well, with no more than 22 percent of Americans saying they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in print, TV, and online news.
Instead, the DoD's ability to partner with Silicon Valley and attract the talent necessary to develop cutting-edge technology may depend on how much goodwill the military has built up with the public over the past several decades. Nearly three-quarters of Americans polled by Gallup expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military as an American institution."
As a result, Carter's efforts to redeem the reputation of the defense and intelligence community may not necessarily need a blessing from Congress, but rather transparency and the willingness to submit to proper legal oversight.
Carter also noted that the DoD faces a broader challenge of keeping abreast of technological advances made by America's chief global competitors.
"The Department of Defense [needs] to stay the best in the world," he said. "If we want to be cutting edge, we have to be open to change and we have to be open to the rest of the world."
With the proposition that the DoD can be open and transparent — while also emphasizing the importance of secretly-run national security programs overseen by only the judiciary and Congress — it seems Carter and the Pentagon are attempting to walk a tightrope between continuing the controversial data collection programs while also maintaining good relations with America's private tech sector, in an effort to keep the US military abreast of rapid technological advances and to attract "the very best" tech talent.
"We want to be an environment where kids who are innovative and really smart want to be," Carter said. "Even if they don't spend their whole life there — just spend a couple years with us — we'll get something out of it, they'll get something out of it: mutual benefit."
In an age where transparency and openness are valued and secrecy is viewed with increasing suspicion, the Pentagon will, by necessity, be compelled to become very innovative indeed in the way that it engages with the public it is pledged to defend.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter:@Operation_Ryan