Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

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.

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

The case for sea-based drones

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 13, 2013. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

If all goes according to plan, sometime on Tuesday the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean could tilt to America’s advantage. The U.S. Navy’s main warships, whose firepower now cannot match the range of Chinese missiles, could gain a new weapon that more than levels the playing field.

It all boils down to a 62-foot-wide, hook-nosed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle built by Northrop Grumman. This new drone is set to launch off the 1,092-foot-long flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, known in Navy parlance as CVN-77 and until Tuesday morning docked at the sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security

The Pentagon’s biggest, most high-tech spy drone aircraft — one of the hottest items on the international arms market — is the key to a burgeoning robotic alliance among the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a $215 million, airliner-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, could help this four-nation coalition monitor both China, as it increasingly flexes its military muscles, and North Korea, as it develops ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

If, and when, Canberra, Tokyo and Seoul acquire their Global Hawks — all three sales negotiations are still at an early stage — they could all share intelligence with Washington and vice versa. For all would be using the same hardware and software system. The resulting network could monitor millions of square miles of land and sea around the clock and in real time.

The secrecy veiling Obama’s drone war

It’s rare for a judge to express regret over her own ruling.  But that’s what happened Wednesday, when Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York reluctantly ruled that the Obama administration does not need to provide public justification for its deadly drone war.

The memos requested by two New York Times reporters and the American Civil Liberties Union, McMahon wrote, “implicate serious issues about the limits on the power of the Executive Branch under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and about whether we are indeed a nation of laws, not of men.” Still, the Freedom of Information Act allows the executive branch to keep many things secret.

In this case, McMahon ruled, the administration’s justifications for the killing of select individuals — including American citizens — without so much as a hearing, constitute an internal “deliberative process” by the government that need not be disclosed.

A battleground for weapons of the future

More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel’s frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world’s leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel’s now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas’ rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

Killer robots and a revolution in warfare

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

They have no fear, they never tire, they are not upset when the soldier next to them gets blown to pieces. Their morale doesn’t suffer by having to do, again and again, the jobs known in the military as the Three Ds – dull, dirty and dangerous.

They are military robots and their rapidly increasing numbers and growing sophistication may herald the end of thousands of years of human monopoly on fighting war. “Science fiction is moving to the battlefield. The future is upon us,” as Brookings scholar Peter Singer put it to a conference of experts at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania this month.

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