Opinion

The Great Debate

The serious costs of weak CIA oversight

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.

Can Congress control the CIA?

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.

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

  •