Can Congress control the CIA?

By David Wise
March 13, 2014

The current fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA – each accuses the other of spying on it – is part of the deep, continuing struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government over the wide-ranging power of the intelligence agency in the post-9/11 world.

The immediate dispute is about the committee’s lengthy study of the CIA’s harsh interrogation policies, used during the Bush administration. But underlying all the charges and counter-charges is a larger question: Can Congress genuinely exercise  its authority if the intelligence agencies can classify, and so control, the committee’s oversight efforts?

The CIA has blocked the release of a powerful report from a duly constituted congressional committee, keeping it under “review” for 16 months. CIA officials claim the report contains many inaccuracies. Although President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report, he was vague on when he would do so.

The CIA reports to the president. Congress can exercise authority, however, because it controls the budget and it has responsibility to oversee  the intelligence agencies. Inevitably, those roles come into conflict as the Senate attempts to exert control over a powerful secret agency of the executive branch.

This power struggle burst into public view during the Church Committee hearings of the  mid-1970s. The Senate hearings stunned the nation with revelations about CIA assassination plots and illegal activities. The result was the creation of congressional committees designed to give the lawmakers greater control over intelligence.

In the aftermath of the horrific September 11 attacks, however, President George W. Bush, aided and abetted by his powerful vice president, Dick Cheney, essentially gave the CIA a free pass to fight the  ”war on terrorism.” The nation learned a new vocabulary: “enhanced interrogation,” “extraordinary rendition” and “black sites.”

Yet the public initially had no idea the CIA was subjecting detainees to brutal interrogation methods  – torture by any definition — in black sites in foreign countries, until Washington Post reporter Dana Priest exposed the practice in 2005 in a story for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Under a separate program of “extraordinary rendition,” terrorist suspects were seized by CIA operatives and shipped to other countries, where they would likely be tortured for information.

Obama, during his 2008 campaign, had promised to curtail the interrogation abuses. Three days after taking office in 2009, he signed an executive order closing down the black sites and transferring prisoners to Guantanamo. He also ordered a study to be performed, but did not end the practice of rendition.

Obama, as the new president, seemed ready to rein in the CIA, placing it under tighter control in the wake of the free-wheeling Bush-Cheney years. But this was not to be.

Under Obama, the drone program, operated by both the CIA and the military, has expanded to become a key weapon in the battle against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Although Obama has promised more transparency and pledged greater efforts to reduce civilian casualties, little has changed. The public is still largely kept in the dark, as the drones continue to kill terrorist chieftains and also hit wedding parties, farmers, women and children.

The CIA had emphasized intelligence collection and analysis as well as covert operations before 9/11. But it has morphed into a new role as a paramilitary organization, with less emphasis on its traditional roles.

Back in the 1970s, the special Senate committee, headed by Senator Frank Church (D-Id.), held a series of sensational hearings on the CIA, the National Security Agency and other government intelligence arms. The public heard that the CIA had plotted the assassination of foreign leaders, spied on antiwar activists, used foundations as fronts and administered LSD to unwitting Americans, one of whom died.

In the wake of these revelations, Congress created committees in both the House and the Senate to oversee the intelligence agencies. It also required that a presidential “finding” be issued and the two committees be informed before the CIA launched a covert operation.

With these institutional changes, congressional leaders felt they had finally put the brakes on the CIA. But as events over past decades have shown, these reforms ultimately failed.

One reason is that presidents find the CIA a tempting secret foreign policy tool — easier than sending in troops in a crisis.

Church famously termed the CIA a “rogue elephant,” which infuriated the agency’s defenders.  Today, as the current dispute demonstrates, there is a rogue elephant in the room.

The battle erupted on the Senate floor on Tuesday when Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the intelligence panel’s chairwoman and normally a staunch CIA defender, denounced it for allegedly spying on committee investigators and violating the constitutional separation of powers.  It was an extraordinary display of fireworks.

But the heart of this dispute reaches back again to the Bush years, because in December 2012 the Senate committee completed work on a massive, 6,300-page study of the CIA’s interrogation and rendition programs. A team of committee investigators spent four years in the basement of a building near CIA’s Virginia headquarters, examining thousands of CIA documents that the agency made available on a special computer network.

But then the CIA classified the Senate report. Despite repeated efforts, Senators have been unable to get a declassified version, or even a summary, made public.

The report is said to be extremely critical of the CIA, claiming that the agency misled Congress, the White House and the public about its interrogation program. The report is also questioning whether the harsh techniques used, including waterboarding, had resulted in any useful information. Meanwhile, last June, Obama’s new CIA director, John Brennan, responded with a more than 100-page report disputing the still-secret Senate study.

But — and here the spy plot thickens– the Senate investigators in that basement had discovered an internal CIA study that appeared to agree with many of the Senate report’s critical findings. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said the internal study “conflicts” with Brennan’s rebuttal.

CIA officials suspected that the Senate investigators had obtained unauthorized access to the internal study, and yanked the documents from the  basement computers. Feinstein said Tuesday that the CIA had not only searched the committee’s computers but had referred the matter  to the Justice Department as a criminal case.

Meanwhile, Brennan, in responding to Feinstein’s charges, said there had been no “tremendous” amount of CIA spying or hacking into the Senate investigators’ computers.

The subtext here is that a senior CIA official ordered the tapes of the interrogations to be destroyed in 2005. So the Senators cannot see for themselves just how bad it was.

The constitutional struggle for control continues between the CIA and the Senate. While the outcome remains uncertain, none of this should be entirely surprising in a democratic system that rests on separation of powers among the executive, congressional and judicial branches of the government.

That, after all, is how the framers of the Constitution designed it. But they didn’t know that the work of Congress could one day be “classified” and kept secret from the public.


PHOTO (TOP): CIA Director John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) talks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 16, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PHOTO (INSERT 2): The CIA logo in the intelligence agency’s office building in Langley, Virginia, REUTERS/Files.

PHOTO (INSERT 3): White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (R) listens as President Barack Obama (L) announces his nomination as the new CIA director at the White House in Washington, January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed




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