The serious costs of weak CIA oversight

By Jane Harman
March 20, 2014

In her angry broadside at the CIA on the Senate floor last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said, “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search … may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”

She is right.

Congress has the constitutional authority to do robust oversight of executive branch activities.

Lost in the noise about who spied on whom in this continuing fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over release of a massive report on interrogations, is the history behind the skirmish.

The intelligence committees were created to address revelations of the Nixon administration’s documented spying on Americans, including illegal wiretapping and surveillance of civilian anti-Vietnam War protesters.  The new House and Senate Intelligence Committees were granted “all necessary authority to exercise effective oversight over the intelligence agencies” and the executive branch was directed to keep the new committee fully and currently informed about its activities. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) passed by large bipartisan margins in 1978.

This structure worked well until 9/11, when the Bush/Cheney White House decided to invoke the president’s emergency “commander in chief” authority under Article II of the Constitution.

This meant developing policy outside of FISA and keeping most of Congress in the dark.

I was then the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. But the first time I learned that the Bush administration had not been following the law was when a leak disclosed the existence of the Terrorist Surveillance Program (a precursor to the phone metadata program revealed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden). Only at that point did President George W. Bush partially declassify the existence of this wide-ranging surveillance program.

Congress pushed back — hard. The FISA regulations were updated and intelligence oversight activities were dramatically increased, largely on a bipartisan basis.

This is the backdrop to the nasty public spat involving Feinstein, Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking intelligence committee member and CIA Director John Brennan.

As an outsider looking in, this fight could have been avoided. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s authority most certainly includes the right to publish reports. Surely the CIA could have done with this 6,000 page report what it routinely does when former employees write books about their experiences: insist on deleting, or redacting, any information about sources and methods which could compromise ongoing operations and put lives at risk.

When the president discontinued the torture program, he said those involved will not be prosecuted, so this issue is not about those who worked hard to carry out what they believed to be valid orders.

Both sides, however, are dug in. And now intrigue has surfaced about the actions of Senate Democratic staff and whether Udall (in a tough re-election fight) overstepped. Equities on both sides are in dispute.

Meanwhile, the regular and important work of the Senate Intelligence Committee and much of the CIA is sidelined at a time when there needs to be keen analysis of Russia’s motivations and future intentions in Ukraine, Syria and Iran.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has urged the Republican Party not to be the “stupid” party. That applies here. This fight is stupid –  a huge distraction over the valid exercise of Congress’s oversight role.

Negotiations need to start now over the release of a redacted report. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who oppose its release should vote against it and file dissenting views. But if a majority votes to release a redacted report, the public should have access to it.

I was walking toward the Capitol on 9/11, when the Pentagon was hit. The Capitol dome, where the Intelligence Committees were then housed, was widely believed to be the target of the fourth plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Of course I remember the universal resolve to protect America at all costs. And we have.

But, in hindsight, using executive power that is unfettered by congressional and court review also had serious costs.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) takes a question during a news conference at her office in San Francisco, California, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

PHOTO (INSERT): Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) meets with John Brennan, nominee for CIA Director, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PHOTO (INSERT 2): The logo of the Central Intelligence Agency is shown in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, March 3, 2005. REUTERS/Jason Reed

11 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The CIA (and NSA, other intelligence agancies) spend vast amounts of money, apparently with little regard for efficiency or effectiveness. Note some major events they failed to identify: Russia invasion of Crimea, or Georgia. 9/11. Bostom Marathon bombers. Fall of Soviet Union. Worse, their screw-ups embarass the whole country, may impede other foreign policy measures. Still worse, their use of classified documents makes it easier for them to cover up embarassing episodes. If we are still a democratic republic, we need far more vigilant oversight.

Posted by Robert97 | Report as abusive

Senator Feinstein owes “We the People” an apology for the failure of her committee to properly oversee the intelligence agencies.

Posted by Zaichik | Report as abusive

“But, in hindsight, using executive power that is unfettered by congressional and court review also had serious costs.”

And some of us did not need hindsight to understand the dangers of a government controlled by the forces of “security”. Instead, we just looked at history, where these lessons are not hard to find, nor hidden away in rare books. The examples of what happens when a government views its own people with suspicion are easy to find, and there is no ambiguity as to the lessons they teach.
Still, welcome to the party, even if you are 13 years too late.
The same with Senator Feinstein: if it took her own rights being infringed upon to finally make her see the light, then perhaps we should encourage the security apparatus to target all the members of Congress. But, I suspect, once the intelligence community is reminded that la classe dirigeante is off-limits, they will be allowed to continue on their merry way, treating normal American citizens like enemies of the state, and trashing the Constitution and Bill of Rights with impunity.

Posted by DenverJay | Report as abusive

Once again, the intelligence agencies have overstepped their bounds. Once again, it was a Republican President in charge. And our current President seems unwilling to bring the intelligence agencies to heel.

Posted by Broken1 | Report as abusive

“This structure worked well until 9/11, when the Bush/Cheney White House decided to invoke the president’s emergency “commander in chief” authority under Article II of the Constitution.”

Aye, there’s the rub.

Posted by SunnyDaySam | Report as abusive

Hey Zaichik – read the article for comprehension this time. Senator Feinstein IS overseeing the intelligence agency. That’s what this is about. And This stuff started with bush/cheney/GOP.

Posted by SunnyDaySam | Report as abusive

Feinstein has fought tooth and nail for continued NSA spying. And now she’s bugged by the same on her? This is all political theater. Feinstein, Boehner, Obama, Pelosi, EVERYONE in the government has voted to keep the military industrial complex in charge, and spying, in direct contravention of the oaths they took to protect the US constitution. The sad fact is they’re all criminals, they just haven’t been charged and convicted yet of high treason against the citizens of this country.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

‘Feinstein has fought tooth and nail for continued NSA spying’

Proof? No?

Posted by SunnyDaySam | Report as abusive

Some of us did not need hindsight to understand the dangers. We just looked at history, where these lessons are not hard to find, nor hidden away. The examples of what happens when a government views its own people with suspicion are easy to find, with no ambiguity as to the lessons they teach.
Still, welcome to the party, even if you are 13 years too late.
The same with Senator Feinstein: if it took her own rights being infringed upon to finally make her see the light, then perhaps we should encourage the security apparatus to target all the members of Congress. But, I suspect, once the intelligence community is reminded that la classe dirigeante is off-limits, they will be allowed to continue on their merry way, treating normal American citizens like enemies of the state, and trashing the Constitution and Bill of Rights with impunity.

Posted by DenverJay | Report as abusive

Time for the C.I.A. to be dismantled. It’s an evil organization, ever since its creation, it’s over-stepped its bounds, big-time. Conducting nefarious experiments on unsuspecting victims, orchestrating coups to this day, spying domestically, assassinating heads of state and innocents. The lists go on. And they do this in our name, on our tax dollars. They don’t just think they’re the fourth branch of government, but the government.

Posted by JustToKnow | Report as abusive

Implied ignorance is what protects the politicians from getting booted out. If it was known that they know what the CIA is doing, the people would kick them out. While they might know, they will always say they didn’t know. It’s possible that the president and congress are not in control and that the military and CIA under the federal reserve and it’s owners have staged a coup that has not been made public. How else can you explain the criminality of the supreme court without congressional legislative action to remedy the courts decisions of enslavement?

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive