There is a term of art in politics and among intelligence professionals that is known as the “limited hangout.” Whenever one’s veil of secrecy is penetrated, spies or politicians can employ misdirection to distract the public. The technique involves disclosing a self-contained and sensational but relatively benign story to overshadow something more damaging. It’s a non-confession, with the agency or individual seeming to “lay all the cards on the table,” and assuage concerns that anyone is trying to hide anything. Upon learning the “truth” as presented, the public is mollified and moves on with no real scrutiny of note, missing the real story altogether.

It’s a kind of public relations pressure valve designed to relieve interest without damaging the larger system. The phrase was popularized during the Watergate scandal, when President Nixon and senior White House officials were recorded having used the term while discussing the merits of releasing manicured details about the burglary. They would acknowledge certain events and withhold others with the effect of clearing the president of any wrongdoing.

‘WE’RE JUST TRYING TO BE FRIENDLY’

A famous example from the 1980s came about during the Iran-Contra scandal. The White House hoped to secure the release of hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon who were connected to Iran. The initial plan involved Israel acting as a middleman, providing arms to Iran (a country against which the United States had an arms embargo) and the United States subsequently resupplying Israel. In exchange for the weapons, Iran promised to do all it could to free the hostages. Eventually, the plan spiraled into the U.S. selling arms to Iran directly and funneling the money to the Contras—anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua who were opposed the Sandinista regime. (The CIA and Defense Department played significant roles.)

When details came to light, a limited hangout was employed. The White House admitted the truth: Yes, the United States had, in fact, sent “small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts” to Iran, not in trade for hostages, but rather, to improve relations with an unfriendly government. Whatever transpired next was incidental, went the implied argument. We’re just trying to be friendly. To be clear, it was a shocking revelation, but it was partial and designed to deflect attention from the more sordid aspects of the operation. It hardly reached the magnitude that Iran-Contra would eventually become.

THE NSA, EDWARD SNOWDEN, AND LOVINT

As with any such sleight of hand, we only know about limited hangouts when they don’t work. When they are successful, the public is none the wiser. Concerning recent events, there’s no way of knowing whether the technique has been employed since Edward Snowden made away with his treasure chest of NSA secrets. By way of a hypothetical, however, one revelation volunteered by the NSA smacks of limited hangout. On August 23, 2013, John DeLong, the NSA’s Chief Compliance Officer, revealed during a conference call to reporters that some members of the NSA used agency resources to spy on spouses and lovers. Internally, this is known as LOVEINT, which is itself a play on the various types of intelligence collected by spies. (Other such examples include SIGINT, for signals intelligence; ELINT, for electronic intelligence; GEOINT, for geospatial intelligence; and HUMINT, for human intelligence). The information was volunteered with the clarification that such activities are a rare occurrence, and that agency members who participated were disciplined or fired.

It was a fascinating admission, and the press and public latched onto it. Only a small percentage of normal human beings follows the debate over the consequences of section 215 of the Patriot Act, for example, but pretty much everyone with a Facebook account understands the motivation behind checking out an ex-girlfriend’s online activities. Here at last was something that people understood intuitively, and more importantly, considered to be largely harmless. Sure, the thinking went, the NSA was spying on Americans, but really it was just some guys curious about their girlfriends! The “LOVEINT” label was like a lurid detail from a pulp spy novel.

The revelation was neatly plated and easily consumed, and capped with reassurance from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, who noted that “these small numbers of cases do not change my view that NSA takes significant care to prevent any abuses and that there is a substantial oversight system in place.”

Lost in the story’s retelling was that most of the perpetrators volunteered the information to superiors; they weren’t caught as a result of some kind of massive internal electronic dragnet. Likewise, the story overshadowed the more alarming story that 3,000 privacy violations had occurred over a one-year period—few of which had anything to do with curious lovers. Again, there’s no evidence that LOVEINT was a limited hangout, but conveniently, it had precisely the same effect; people are far more likely to remember it than the revelation that came only one week later: that the NSA has infiltrated Google and Yahoo data centers.

The toolboxes carried by intelligence professionals are fascinating and always evolving. In an age of cyberweapons and “robobugs,” sometimes it’s the old methods that work best. The easiest way to counter a major intelligence breach is to tell the truth. Well, the right kind of truth, anyway.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.