Public Attitudes on U.S. Intelligence in 2020

Joshua Busby, Archit Oswal, Steve Slick
Monday, June 7, 2021, 10:59 AM

A final Trump-era survey confirms broad popular support and reveals opportunities for greater transparency.

Headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, Va. (Source: Flickr/Central Intelligence Agency)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently published the results from the fourth round of an annual poll sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s Intelligence Studies Project that seeks to shed light on Americans’ perceptions of U.S. intelligence agencies. The data from summer 2020—along with selected graphics, a summary of the survey history and methodology, and related policy analysis—is available here.

The most recent survey reaffirmed Americans’ broad-based belief that U.S. intelligence agencies are vital to protecting the nation and effective in accomplishing their core missions. This round of polling was the last conducted during Donald Trump’s presidency. The high levels of public support for the intelligence community (IC) recorded over the life of this project have proved stable and remarkably resilient to the persistent public criticism by the former president and his political allies.

We argue that close examination of the survey data could help inform a strategy aimed at further enhancing the IC’s democratic legitimacy through increased openness and renewed public engagement. Indeed, a majority (62 percent) of Americans in both 2019 and 2020 agreed that the IC could share more information about its activities with the American people without compromising its effectiveness. Support for greater openness tracked moderately with age (younger respondents were more likely to favor greater transparency) and more directly with partisan affiliation. Two-thirds of self-identified Democrats agreed or strongly agreed that more information could be shared, but only half of Republican respondents thought that sharing more information with the public would be possible without the IC compromising its effectiveness.

Key Takeaways From the 2020 Survey

  • A strong majority of Americans (64 percent) believes that the IC plays a vital role in protecting the nation. Popular support for the intelligence agencies has proved consistent, bipartisan and notably resilient over a four-year span marked by unprecedented hostility emanating from a U.S. president. Younger Americans are less inclined than their elders to regard the IC as necessary.
  • An overwhelming majority of Americans rate U.S. intelligence agencies as capable in accomplishing their specialized missions, with more than eight in 10 rating the IC as effective or highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks (85 percent) and uncovering the plans of U.S. adversaries (83 percent). However, barely half of Americans (52 percent) believe that U.S. intelligence agencies are effective at safeguarding citizens’ privacy rights and civil liberties.
  • While Americans are evenly split on the need to respect the privacy rights of foreigners to the same degree as U.S. citizens, this overall result masked significant age and partisan differences. Seventy-three percent of millennials agreed that IC agencies should protect the personal information of foreigners, but only 29 percent of baby boomers held that view. Democrats generally agreed that the IC should be constrained in its handling of personal data on non-Americans, while far fewer Republicans supported this policy.
  • A majority of Americans (62 percent) agreed the IC could share more information with the U.S. public without compromising its mission effectiveness. Black (31 percent), Hispanic (29 percent), female (29 percent) and Gen Z (36 percent) respondents were the most likely to admit they lacked the information needed to form an opinion on U.S. intelligence.
  • Americans remain uncertain about which government officials or institutions are responsible for overseeing U.S. intelligence agencies. Partisan affiliation appears to color these responses. Republicans (23 percent) were more than twice as likely as Democrats (9 percent) to believe the president was responsible for ensuring U.S. intelligence agencies “act within the law and in the country’s best interest,” while Democrats (27 percent) were more inclined than Republicans (11 percent) to charge Congress with intelligence oversight.

Below, we provide excerpts from the full report for interested readers.

Transparency, Public Trust, and Democratic Legitimacy

… Trump-era intelligence officials deliberately lowered their public profiles to avoid triggering an irascible and vindictive boss. IC leaders avoided providing open testimony at Congress’s worldwide threat hearings—the single opportunity in most years for the American people to see and hear from senior intelligence officials. The few public actions taken by Trump’s last [director of national intelligence (DNI)], John Ratcliffe (2020-2021), involved the declassification of documents related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election which was apparently intended to bolster the incumbent’s re-election prospects, notwithstanding the risk of damage to intelligence sources and the IC’s reputation for nonpartisanship.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has acted to restore public confidence in essential government institutions like the intelligence agencies. In testimony delivered at her confirmation hearing, incoming DNI Avril Haines promised to “prioritize transparency” in order to enhance the public’s confidence in the competence, integrity, and nonpartisanship of US intelligence.

Despite the unprecedented assault on American intelligence during the Trump presidency, our polling consistently confirmed the existence of a durable reservoir of public confidence in our intelligence agencies. At the same time, our surveys reveal differences in public attitudes on US intelligence based on age, gender, and party affiliation as well as specific topics that reliably trigger widespread concern. These insights may prove useful for incoming IC leaders who have expressed interest in reinvigorating efforts to increase transparency and design public-facing programs to educate and inform a broader public about the work of our intelligence agencies.

For example, our data indicate that general knowledge of foreign affairs and the support for the IC is weakest among younger Americans and women. Skepticism about the IC’s commitment to protecting privacy rights and civil liberties is widespread. While the IC’s overall support is bipartisan, sharp party differences emerged when respondents were asked about the IC’s role in presidential policymaking, the respective roles of the president and Congress in overseeing the intelligence agencies, and the protections that should be provided to the personal information of foreigners. Closing these partisan gaps by reinforcing the apolitical ethos of American intelligence should be a priority for the new administration.

Our July 2020 survey once again reflected widespread agreement with the view that US intelligence agencies play a vital role in warning against foreign threats and contribute to national security. More than 6 in 10 respondents held this view while fewer than 1 in 10 thought our IC was no longer necessary because of the increased availability of information on events overseas or because these agencies represented a threat to Americans’ civil liberties. This favorable attitude by a majority of Americans toward U.S. intelligence has proven over the four-year life of the project to be stable, nonpartisan, and resilient.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans who qualified as “high knowledge” were considerably more likely to regard the IC as necessary than others who were less well informed on foreign affairs. While majorities of both male and female respondents expressed a favorable view of the IC, support among men was slightly stronger.

Each of our surveys has also recorded a significant disparity in the degree of confidence in their judgments claimed by males and females. For example, in the 2020 survey, 29% of female respondents expressed no opinion or claimed they lacked the information necessary to assess US intelligence, while only 13% of men chose these responses. Black (31%) and Hispanic (29%) Americans were more likely than Whites (17%) to cite insufficient information or claim no opinion on US Intelligence.

While the general polling data reflect stable majority support for the US intelligence agencies, comparing the support levels within different age cohorts reveals noteworthy disparities. Support for the IC is strongest with older Americans and weakest within the younger cohorts. Nearly 8 in 10 Boomers (1946-1981) agreed that the IC was vital to our national security while fewer than half of Gen Z (post-1997) participants share that view.

The same generational gap emerged in responses to questions about civil liberties and public engagement. Only three percent of the oldest survey respondents believed the IC represented a threat to civil liberties, but 14 percent of Millennials expressed that concern. Similarly, 16 percent of Americans in the Boomer cohorts expressed no opinion (or lacked sufficient information) about the IC while more than one-third of Gen Z respondents (36%) said the same.

… [W]e asked respondents how effective the IC was in accomplishing a number of its core missions: counterterrorism, collecting foreign intelligence, influencing conditions abroad (covert action), supporting national security policymaking, and counterintelligence. Continuing a trend identified in earlier polling, our 2020 survey confirmed that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our intelligence agencies are effective or highly effective in preventing terror attacks (86%) and learning the plans of hostile governments (84%). The large group of respondents who assign the IC high marks for effective work in the counterterrorism and foreign intelligence missions is stable (even rising) over time, gender neutral, and bipartisan. Unlike in previous years, in 2020, the IC’s effectiveness in these high-profile missions was acknowledged equally by “high knowledge” respondents as well as those who are less well informed on foreign affairs.

The 2020 survey reflected that somewhat smaller but still solid majorities of Americans continued to view the IC as effective in “influencing events overseas in favor of the US” as well as in “protecting sensitive defense information from foreign governments.” We noted with interest that more than 7 in 10 Americans (71%) rated the IC as effective or very effective in performing its counterintelligence and information security functions notwithstanding the increasing number of large, well-publicized, damaging breaches of government and private networks by foreign intelligence services.

While the overall assessment of the IC’s effectiveness in helping the president “develop sound foreign policies” has remained steady over the life of the project at roughly 60 percent, we first noted in last year’s report that this general result masked a significant disparity in the perceptions of respondents who identified as Republicans or Democrats. Roughly 8 in 10 Republicans thought the IC was effective in helping the president develop sound foreign policies while fewer than half of those who identified as Democrats held that view. We doubt that these disparate perceptions are grounded in an informed evaluation of the IC’s actual performance providing information to former President Trump, which took place outside public view, but rather they were shaped by respondents’ attitudes toward Trump, his policies, and the unconventional manner in which he developed them. Evidence that Americans’ attitudes toward the IC are shaped by views on a polarizing political leader rather than available measures of performance is unremarkable, but the fact should nonetheless concern intelligence leaders anxious to reinforce the traditional apolitical ethos that undergirds the IC’s credibility with elected officials of both parties.

2020 survey respondents credited the IC with being highly effective in most of its core mission areas, but the number of respondents who agreed that the IC was effective in safeguarding Americans’ privacy and civil liberties continued to lag. Only half of Americans surveyed (52%) agreed that the intelligence agencies effectively protected their civil liberties. Younger Americans, Independents and Democratic respondents were marginally more skeptical of the IC’s performance in this area.

Joshua Busby is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. From 2021 to 2023, he served as a senior advisor for climate at the U.S. Department of Defense.
Archit Oswal is an undergraduate fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.
Steve Slick is a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of CIA’s clandestine service, and served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform.

Subscribe to Lawfare