Some 20 years ago we were twenty-something staff members on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. For the most part, President George H.W. Bush’s early 1990s were kinder, gentler years in the history of congressional oversight of the intelligence community, with minimal friction and serious Capitol Hill deference to agency policies. However, it hadn’t always been so calm and collegial. And once again today, the future looks positively stormy. That’s a good thing for American democracy.
Sen. Diane Feinstein is justifiably trying to take the CIA and its director, John Brennan, back to the future with a public shaming that could to lead to a rebalancing of power between Congress and the intelligence community. The shift is long overdue.
The intelligence oversight committees were formed in the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate crucible when the legislative branch, long marginalized on national security matters, was seeking to reassert itself. Stung by the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the Pentagon Papers, and revelations of a massive domestic spying operation, the Church and Pike committees exposed the harms resulting from the largely free operational hand that the CIA held during the first three decades of the Cold War. Beating back the Soviet Union at all costs was no longer enough to justify illegal behavior, blatant disregard for international norms, and rampant violations of the rights of Americans.
Historical information that Americans now take for granted came as revelations in the 1970s. They were called the CIA’s “family jewels”: Walk-around election money to buy votes for the anti-Communist Christian Democrats in Italy; support for brutal military coups in Guatemala, Iran, Greece and Brazil; nutty plots to kill Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba; making the Chilean economy scream to upend the popularly elected leftist Salvador Allende; and, at home, physical surveillance and home break-ins of journalists, activists, and ex-agents, complicity with the Watergate burglars, and testing of mind-altering drugs on unwitting human subjects. It all came out in the open with a breathtaking clarity and speed.
The family jewels had shined a bright light on what most Americans agreed crossed the line. The skeletons in the intel closet were condemned by the public as inconsistent with American values.
With the establishment of permanent oversight committees, Members of Congress who once knew very little about how the intelligence community conducted covert operations or spent its growing “black” budgets suddenly had access to the seamy side of American foreign policy. How could the politicians ever control the clandestine services within the confines of an open democracy and yet keep the real secrets a secret? It was incongruent and messy, but the system achieved some successes in curbing agency abuses and enhancing public access to information about agency activities.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the oversight committees played key roles in uncovering scandals like the Iran-Contra affair and other more minor overindulgences. The congressional committees, with their small professional staffs and busy elected officials pressed for time between Agriculture Committee hearings and the need to raise money and spend time campaigning back home, couldn’t dig into everything, but they often were able to do enough to curb egregious abuses.
Most of the real disputes over covert activity and funding priorities between the Congress and the intelligence agencies played out in closed sessions, away from the media, in specially sealed rooms in the Hart Senate Office Building, the Capitol, and in Langley. Chaired by level-headed and long extinct conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans like David Boren and Arlen Specter, the committee rarely voted along party lines and didn’t call out the CIA director in public for breaking laws or breaching constitutional principles.
In the post 9/11 world, however, the hubris of the national security agencies also coincided with an unfortunate denigration of the role that elected officials should always play in making sure that even our secret programs adhere to the rule of law. Understanding the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other interrogation methods at secret prisons around the world, the NSA’s wholesale capture of Americans’ communications, and other activities, remains of critical importance. And Director of Central Intelligence Brennan ought to be worried about the political fallout from a report that Sen. Feinstein has said will explain “the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”
Breaking into congressional files, stealing documents, and sabotaging an investigation seems like the stuff of two generations ago. So what’s going on? The exposure of the CIA’s new family jewels is at stake, and the revelations have the potential to fundamentally readjust the balance of power between Congress and the CIA, in a way that better informs the public and conforms U.S. policy to U.S. values. Let’s hope that is exactly what happens.
David Halperin, a Washington DC lawyer, was counsel at the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1991-1993. Zach Messitte was press spokesman for the committee from 1990-1993. He is now the President of Ripon College in Wisconsin.