Congress, Intelligence, and Secrecy During War
A Congress Project Seminar
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 raised serious questions about the adequacy of U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorist efforts at home and abroad. These questions led to the initiation of a joint inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees in February 2002 (with a final report issued in December), and the creation of an independent commission launched in late 2002 to look into the failures and recommend changes to prevent a recurrence of such attacks. This Congress Project seminar "Congress, Intelligence, and Secrecy During War" revealed mixed views on how well Congress and the intelligence community have responded to this new challenge, notwithstanding some initial steps by both branches to improve upon U.S. intelligence capabilities.
Representative Porter Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), told the audience that the job of his committee was to "worry about the hot spots in the world and know what is going on and how well we are doing" so that we can lessen the vulnerability of our quality of life and people. He said the role of the committee is one of oversight and advocacy—-oversight in the sense of looking over the activities of the intelligence community, not overlooking them, and advocacy for improving and strengthening its ability to protect our country's security interests. "We are both a 1-800 number for the people to call if they think the intelligence community is operating out of bounds, and also a 1-800 number for the intelligence community to get adequate authorization and funds for the necessary work it performs. Our awareness of what bad things are going on in the world has increased incredibly since 9/11."
He observed that "we have been slow in the past in gathering the intelligence we need in a timely manner on the new terrorists threats confronting us. It is a hugely different requirement than counting ships and tanks as we did in World War II." Goss said that part of the problem has been that most of our intelligence efforts have been focused on foreign intelligence, not domestic. "We decided in 1947 that we would not have Americans spying on Americans. So, how do we get to a comprehensive intelligence program that covers both foreign and domestic threats while still protecting the civil liberties and privacy rights that are at the heart of our democracy?"
Goss concluded that the central challenge facing our intelligence community is getting the people in the various agencies to know each other, to talk to each other, and to share intelligence. This is especially difficult when agencies' computers can't even talk to each other.
Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, credited Goss, Speaker Dennis Hastert, and then House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt with having the foresight to establish a working group on terrorism and homeland security in the Intelligence Committee nine months before 9/11. The working group, on which Harman served as the ranking minority member, was later elevated to a subcommittee chaired by then Representative Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). She said the role of the House Intelligence Committee is to provide a capacity to assure the accountability of both our intelligence agencies and the Congress for our intelligence activities. "It is critically important that we focus on policy and not politics in our committee" given the secret and sensitive nature of the committee's responsibilities. She said that both the House and Senate intelligence committees have exposed abuses in the past, but beyond that it is just as important that "we assess the policies responsible for the abuses and correct them to prevent them from happening again." Harman noted that "reforms can be a two-edged sword," citing as an example the new guidelines for recruiting intelligence sources that led to "a risk averse culture." The guidelines didn't work; "it took an act of Congress to change them."
Harman noted that the joint House-Senate inquiry was well worth the effort. "It was necessary that certain portions of the report be classified," but that other portions should be made available to the public. "It ‘s been six months and we're still at an impasse over the declassification of the report that the American people should see. They bought it, they paid for it, and it's theirs." Harman said that the quick success of the war in Iraq was due in large part to intelligence, both on the ground and in the skies that enabled the precision weapons to be used effectively. She concluded that the challenges that lie ahead include making sure that any reorganization of the intelligence community is effective, dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, promoting better intelligence sharing both at the national level and with state and local agencies, and the "effective balancing of increased security with civil liberties."
Loch Johnson, a professor of political science who has also worked in both the Congress and Executive Branch on intelligence matters in the 1970s and 1990s, raised doubts about the effectiveness of congressional intelligence oversight today. "Since 9/11, we have witnessed an era of congressional acquiescence—-a mutual admiration society between intelligence agencies and their congressional overseers." While oversight since the mid-seventies--when the House and Senate intelligence committees were established--has been robust compared to the earlier years, he observed, it still falls short of the goals envisioned in creating these new committees. He said the sporadic nature of intelligence oversight is more a "fire-alarm" role, responding to abuses and scandals, than a "police-patrolling" role of day-to-day monitoring of intelligence activities. "Responding to failures is not enough in this dangerous world; one must try harder to prevent them from occurring in the first place." One of the problems, said Johnson, is the rotation requirement that members not serve on the committees more than eight years. While this was done to prevent the co-optation of members by the intelligence agencies, the reality is that "rotation has actually harmed oversight, because as soon as members become sufficiently experienced and expert in arcane intelligence matters, they must leave the committee."
Commenting on the intelligence community, Johnson pointed to continuing weaknesses in all five stages of the intelligence cycle: planning and direction, collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination. The most important criticism that emerged from the recent joint inquiry, said Johnson, was the lack of cooperation between agencies in sharing information. Another problem, said Johnson, is "the great paradox that we spend over $35 billion on intelligence each year, and yet the policymakers sometimes don't take it very seriously; they refuse to accept good intelligence when they get it." Johnson cited as an example 12 reports sent by the CIA through the higher echelons of the government between 1995 and 2002--including the two congressional intelligence committees-- citing the need to increase airport security because of terrorist targeting. "In this sense, the attacks of 9/11 were as much a policy failure as an intelligence failure, and, on both accounts, failures of legislative overseers who should have prodded the government to respond to these classified warnings."
Dana Priest, a veteran reporter with The Washington Post for more than 15 years on foreign and defense matters, said she had only recently moved from covering the Defense Department to reporting on the CIA. "It's the most difficult beat I've ever covered—-a world that is inherently secret." Priest said when she suggested that the CIA allow for at least one reporter to embed with their mission in Iraq, given the fact that DoD permitted over 500 reporters to embed with their troops, her request was rejected out-of-hand when she was hung-up on.
She noted that since 9/11 there's been more secrecy than ever, less tolerance of criticism, and less willingness by the Congress to take on the Administration. "There has been a failure by Congress to demand what the President knew prior to 9/11. People were informing the President what al Qaeda was up to prior to that." Priest said her natural skepticism as a journalist caused her to question the motivations behind recent leak investigations in Congress and in DoD. "They appear designed more to intimidate people not to talk with the press than anything." In both cases, she observed, no guilty parties were identified. Priest said reporting is difficult enough during peace, but especially so during wartime when secrecy is paramount, and often carried to extremes. "As reporters, we need better context in which to write our stories, but we've gotten no help--from the government." According to Priest, the issue of people being detained both in the U.S. and abroad is an example of a question hanging over this war that requires better context and reporting. How many are there? What is their legal status? How many have been released? And, How many deported? She quoted CIA Director George Tenet as using the figure "3,000 people in custody around the world," but it is not certain whether that is a constant number, and there is no information on what legal authority is being used for different types of detention.