Chill on the Hill
Even the savviest members need years before they've mastered the skills to challenge reticent intelligence officials. "First you've got to know what to ask for," says Shelby, "and second, to ask the right thing at the right time to the right person." Eight-year committee term limits, which sounded good when originally proposed as a way of preventing members from building power bases, have ended up weakening the effectiveness and independence of the committees. "About the time you are really into these programs, you're off the committee," says Shelby, who is leaving soon, at the peak of his knowledge and willingness to criticize the agencies.
"The intelligence officers' testimony is highly sophisticated," notes a former panel chairman. "You have to be alert and suspicious to penetrate. They snow you with fancy jargon. They jack you around. It is not unlike pre-emption with any department, except that these guys are very good at it." They have also already checked with the White House to be certain that nothing they say will cause political headaches. "Intelligence should drive policy," notes Lee Hamilton, a former House Intelligence Committee chairman, "but often it is the other way around. Policy drives intelligence." Instead of independent analysis, oversight committees get information that Hamilton says has been "distilled" for Congressional consumption. Agency officials are also good at dangling carrots before committee members, he says. "They are awful nice to them, invite them to the CIA, give them a nice dinner, court them, seduce them." Meanwhile, spy agency personnel view committee members as political animals eager to drag their analysts into a debate, hoping to use "pure" intelligence to beat up or to support the White House. As one intelligence officer told the author of a 1997 report on the relationship between the agencies and the lawmakers, "It's bad enough that policy-makers get this stuff and run with it. Can you imagine what would happen if we gave it to Congress?"
Very likely, nothing at all. The same 1997 report concluded that most intelligence provided to lawmakers is read neither by staff nor by members, who apparently have more important demands on their time. One Congressional staff member told the author of the report, "I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to my Member that it is worth his time to come in here and read this stuff. Frankly, it is not even worth my time."
It turns out that the whole vast enterprise of intelligence oversight is balanced on the head of a pin. According to a 1992 report from a senior Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, the multibillion-dollar budget of the nation's intelligence agencies is reviewed by a Hill staff of about a dozen people. "They are dependent on the agencies for information and do not have the means for independent confirmation of that information," says Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
Applying the principle of "it takes one to know one," members of oversight committees turn almost exclusively to insiders to fill staff posts. It's such a revolving door that there's almost no incentive for anyone to risk alienating anyone. When I tried to track the whereabouts of a former staff director whom one Congressman recalled as being of refreshingly independent spirit, I found him working at the CIA (he quickly hung up on me). Just how convoluted does this game of musical chairs get? The House intelligence panel is chaired by Porter Goss, a former CIA officer, who is charged with "overseeing" a CIA director, George Tenet, who is himself a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff director. While it might be advisable to have an independent-minded committee member who knows the CIA inside and out, Goss is an unrelenting cheerleader. One insider neatly sums it up: "Porter Goss goes beyond support to protection."
Rob Simmons is the intelligence community's trifecta. A former CIA officer and a former staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, he now represents Connecticut's second district in Congress. Though not yet on any of the intelligence committees, the first-termer has been permitted by Goss to read classified materials and obtain briefings. Some who have testified say they're less worried that what they say will be leaked to the public than that it will get back to the agencies themselves, which are known for their zealousness in tracking down whistleblowers.
Even party labels mean next to nothing. Two of the more comparatively tough-minded members, Senator Shelby and Representative Saxby Chambliss, are from the GOP, while Democrats Bob Graham and Representative Jane Harman are considered stalwarts for the status quo. When the Democrats took back the Senate in May 2001, many in the CIA could barely conceal their glee at the prospect of Floridian Graham as committee chairman--a choice they found infinitely preferable to the more critical Shelby. Graham sometimes issues tough statements, but he is considered totally "on board." His intriguing past includes the controversial sale of his home, through a middleman, to Carlos Cardoen, a Chilean arms dealer who exported cluster-bomb technology to Iraq during its war with Iran (supposedly with an official US OK). Cardoen, who was accused of using real estate to launder money, raised funds for Graham's first Senate race. Graham was also close to David Paul, who went to jail for his role in the failure of an S&L with links to the intelligence-connected and now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Graham gets along famously with Republican Goss. Said a well-respected former chairman about the duo, "I find them inoffensive at a time when they should be aggressive."
Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism operations and analysis, says that the chairmanship usually goes to someone who has been a big supporter of the intelligence community. "When they are not, the community leaks adverse information," he says. "People with presidential ambitions won't fuck with the intelligence community--especially if there is weird stuff in their backgrounds."