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Chill on the Hill | The Nation

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Chill on the Hill

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When secrecy comes up against accountability, the former almost always wins. Yet the fear of harmful leaks has little basis in fact. As a CIA consultant noted in a 1997 report, "Apart from a handful of widely reported and somewhat dated examples, no intelligence agency personnel interviewed for this study could point to instances of compromise by Members or their staffs." In fact, even the now-famous memo by FBI Minneapolis bureau agent Coleen Rowley about deficiencies at the bureau has never been leaked in its entirety.

Research support was provided by the Investigative
Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the founder of the Real News Project. He may be reached at contact@realnews.org.

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The June "leak" regarding the National Security Agency's Arabic intercept the day before September 11 (in which someone declared "the match begins tomorrow" and "tomorrow is zero hour") gave the Administration an excuse to rough up the committees. But Loch Johnson, a respected former intelligence committee staffer, says bluntly, "Chances are, the leak came from the executive branch anyway. And if not, the Congress can read the riot act to members and staff, and they will almost always shape up." As in fact they did, scrambling to demand an inquiry into themselves. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the liberal minority whip and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, declared, "It is appropriate that we ask for this investigation and let the chips fall where they may." Several committee members balked when the probers suggested lie-detector tests all around (Shelby said he wouldn't comply, and Pelosi objected as well), but others, including Republican Senator Jon Kyl, indicated an enthusiasm for getting hooked up to a polygraph. According to the Associated Press, the offices of thirteen of seventeen committee members confirmed that they were turning over telephone logs, memos, visitor sign-in sheets and other documents--and not a single member indicated he or she would resist. In the panic and rush to establish bona fides, no one even dared to suggest that the public might be better off knowing about such matters.

John McCain underlined this when he recently stormed out of a so-called top-secret briefing, complaining that senators were learning less than they might from reading the paper. Although the committees looking into 9/11 and more generalized intelligence failings typically meet in closed session in order to protect "sources and methods," former House committee chairman Dan Glickman remembers, "They didn't tell us anything about that anyway." Glickman recalls the constant frustration of facing intelligence personnel who refused to declassify, or even talk about, information that was already out in the press. Their refusal means that Congress members are checkmated from mentioning such matters in public. It's even worse on the rare occasion when members have some worthwhile knowledge as a result of their briefings. "Most excruciating for me," recalls Lee Hamilton, "was when the President would say something at a news conference and he was flat wrong. On the basis of available intelligence, you know information that makes it wrong, but you can't say anything about it." Shelby left the impression that little has changed in this regard. Even more fundamental, Congress members have almost no way to assess the quality of raw intelligence or how it is analyzed.

Institutional cocooning is best illustrated by the continued classification not only of line items in the intelligence budget but even of the single figure that represents total intelligence spending. Periodic efforts by committee members to eliminate this ridiculous tiptoeing have largely gone silent since 9/11. The 1997 and 1998 budget totals were declassified only after the Federation of American Scientists sued for the information. Another current suit demands the release of the 2002 budget (widely believed to exceed $30 billion) and, incredibly, the 1947 and 1948 budgets, which the CIA still deems too sensitive to make public. One might well conclude that this attitude is less about protecting legitimate secrets than hiding the faults of the system itself. "There is probably a lot of classified information that might be embarrassing to people but not undermine the Republic," says Shelby.

Committee members routinely complain that agency personnel try to keep them in the dark on the high-tech equipment that consumes so much of the spying budget. Where such nondisclosure lurks, can pork be far behind? Recruiting Farsi or Arabic speakers may result in better intelligence for a relatively small outlay, but it's the hugely expensive technology contracts (and the jobs they provide) that allow Congress members to reward contributors and constituents, often without an accurate sense of what largesse they are dispensing. It's further downhill from there. "Would-be critics do not even know what is at issue," laments Aftergood. And, of course, there's that old revolving door: Typical is former Senate committee staff director Taylor Lawrence, who went over to defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

The oversight process certainly has its "moments" (one of which is right now), but its overall performance seems designed to protect a dinosaur. Times have changed, the world has changed, but we don't really know what--except for buying increasingly fancy hardware--the spy agencies have done to change their strategies and tactics since the cold war. As the long-delayed "open" hearings unfold, the confluence of events and the public mood may have finally created a rare window for real reform. Even Shelby agrees. "We think it will take public pressure to modernize these agencies," he says. Fair enough. But the pressure will have to start with someone who knows something, such as committee members themselves. What if one or two of them decide to go public with a more detailed critique of the current system? What if they declare openly that "sources and methods" is a red herring, and that it's time for the public to be told some of the hard truths about the intelligence community's quotidian operations?

They might start by challenging the idea that government works best by keeping "sensitive" information secret. There is evidence that much successful investigative work and pre-emptive action depends on a collaboration with the public. Given what we now know about tips and leads that were ignored by the bureaucracy before 9/11, it can be argued that bringing more openness to the process would improve accountability and increase public safety. Opening up the system, within prudent limits, will require not just more "open" hearings but changes in the intelligence community to insure that criticisms and suggestions are heard and, where appropriate, acted on. The oversight committees can take steps to put together well-informed and more vigorous staffs, whose mission includes not just asking agency officials better questions but cultivating alternative sources of information. Where can the committees find such staffers? Some knowledgeable insiders suggest that the best place to look might be among disaffected former intelligence officers who got into trouble for speaking out or who retired in disgust.

Right now, we need some big, concrete moves. For example, if homeland security is going to be "centralized," then perhaps so should the intelligence oversight and budgeting process, which is now shared among committees, including Armed Services and Judiciary as well as Intelligence. But the most important first step is to insure that the impending independent commission on 9/11 has the clout and know-how to dig deep and effect change. As important, after it looks into 9/11, it should be converted into a non-Congressional variant of the original Church committee of the 1970s, which created oversight. It needs a firm mandate to reassess the entire intelligence mission and infrastructure, and the ways in which a democratic society can have a say over its spies. Archimedes said, "Give me a place to stand, and I can move the Earth." Moving the intelligence community toward greater efficacy and accountability will take the concerted efforts of tough people who combine law enforcement and intelligence experience with a willingness to seek answers in the face of opposition from some of the most formidable powers in and out of government.

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