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Congressional Oversight and the Crippling of the CIA

One utterly predictable response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were calls by members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to “shake-up” the Central Intelligence Agency. Some committee members want to see CIA Director George Tenet replaced, others are demanding radical changes in both the analytical and operational divisions of the agency. It would be shortsighted for the intelligence committees to place the blame for this latest intelligence failure exclusively on the CIA’s management. If the committees are interested in genuine reform, they would do well to begin by acknowledging their own culpability in crippling the agency. Under both Democratic and Republican chairmen, the intelligence committees have transformed the CIA into the functional equivalent of the Department of Agriculture, preventing the agency from acting in a shrewd and, as is sometimes necessary, ruthless manner. Any “reform” is doomed to fail if Congress continues to play its role as a partner, if not outright “owner,” in the management of the CIA.

The story of how the executive branch lost its control over the CIA is well known, but deserves a retelling, since it is often presented incompletely. In the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and revelations of CIA assassination plots and domestic spying, Congress moved in the mid-1970s to “reassert” its role in shaping American foreign policy, including the most controversial tool of that policy, covert action. Secrecy was seen as antithetical to the American way, and there was widespread agreement that “rogue” agencies such as the CIA were a threat to liberty. Proponents of congressional intelligence oversight argued that openness and accountability were the cornerstone of a legitimate foreign policy, and it was believed that Congress, due to its diversity of opinion, possessed greater wisdom than the executive branch. Spurred on by the sensational revelations of the Church Committee hearings in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House, both bodies established permanent intelligence committees.


It is still widely believed that the Church and Pike reforms were an attempt to cure a “cancerous” growth on the Constitution that had developed during the Cold War, an era which witnessed an increasing reliance on executive secrecy and the creation of a “private army” for the president in the form of the CIA. Senator Frank Church and his allies claimed that an assertive legislative role would bring the United States “back to the genius of the Founding Fathers.” This assertion was made despite the fact that American presidents from 1789 to 1974 were given wide latitude to conduct clandestine operations they believed were in the national interest. President Washington, in his first annual message to Congress in 1790, requested a Contingency Fund, or “secret service” fund, as one member of Congress described it. Washington was given this fund, in the amount of $40,000, a sizable sum in the early 1790s. The president was not required to report how he spent this money, he merely had to divulge the amount of money spent, without revealing to whom or for what reasons it had been spent. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, all authorized clandestine operations out of this fund, and did not report the details to Congress. This pattern persisted until the mid-1970s with little or no change, other than the increasing size and bureaucratization of the nation’s intelligence apparatus in the twentieth century. The real aberration occurred in the mid-1970s when the United States granted its legislative branch the greatest control over intelligence matters of any Western nation, and overturned the system which had prevailed in the United States since the Founding.

The damage done to the CIA by this congressional oversight regime is quite extensive. The committees increased the number of CIA officials subject to Senate confirmation, condemned the agency for its contacts with unscrupulous characters, prohibited any further contact with these bad characters, insisted that the United States not engage or assist in any coup which may harm a foreign leader, and overwhelmed the agency with interminable requests for briefings (some 600 alone in 1996). The committees exercised line by line authority over the CIA’s budget and established an Inspector General’s office within the agency, requiring this official to share his information with them, causing the agency to refrain from operations with the slightest potential for controversy. The CIA was also a victim of the renowned congressional practice of pork barrel politics. The intelligence committees forced the agency to accept high priced technology that just happened to be manufactured in a committee member’s district.

On some occasions, members of Congress threatened to leak information in order to derail covert operations they found personally repugnant. Leaks are a recurring problem, as some member of Congress, or some staff member, demonstrated in the aftermath of the September 11th attack. President Bush’s criticism of members of Congress was fully justified, despite the protests from Capitol Hill. Leaks have occurred repeatedly since the mid-1970s, and in very few cases has the offending party been disciplined. One of the Founding Fathers of the new oversight regime, former Representative Leo Ryan, held that leaks were an important tool in checking the “secret government.”

In the wake of the September 11th terror attack, some legislators are now proclaiming their commitment to unleashing the CIA and rebuilding its human “assets.” Just a short while ago these same legislators were leading the charge to curtail the agency. One such convert is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden. The Delaware Democrat was one of seventeen Senators who voted in 1974 to ban all covert operations, and proudly noted during his 1988 campaign for president that he had threatened to “go public” with covert action plans by the Reagan administration, causing them to cancel the operations. Hopefully Senator Biden, and other congressional converts, are undergoing a genuine epiphany. Perhaps they now realize, as Henry Kissinger once observed about the Church Committee, that it is an illusion that “tranquility can be achieved by an abstract purity of motive for which history offers no example.” It is precisely this illusion which has prevailed in congressional circles since the heyday of Frank Church and Otis Pike. As Church himself once argued, the United States should not “fight fire with fire . . . evil with evil.”

Another convert is Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who led the charge in the mid-1990s to prevent the CIA from hiring unsavory characters. Torricelli rallied to the defense of State Department employee Robert Nuccio, who leaked classified material dealing with CIA operations in Guatemala to Torricelli, who in turn held a press conference and revealed the information to the media. It was these revelations that led to congressional restrictions on the ability of agents in the field to deal with “bad people.” Torricelli is now calling for a “thorough inquiry” into what he calls the intelligence community’s “stunning failure.”

There is almost universal agreement that the CIA remains overly reliant on technological tools in gathering information on very human, very political, problems. Yet Congress is partly responsible for this, for the intelligence committees (with the support of some in the executive branch, particularly in the Carter and Clinton administrations) were determined to keep America’s hands clean. Technology was safer -- it kept us at a distance from the “dirty stuff.” The sad reality is that a CIA operative with any hope of infiltrating a terrorist cell would need to demonstrate his bona fides in any number of reprehensible ways. These are unpleasant thoughts to contemplate, and they certainly do not fit our conception of the way the world ought to work. But America cannot have it both ways -- it cannot expect to deter an Osama bin Laden and keep its hands clean at the same time. Presidents need options short of war to handle this type of threat.

While the old CIA may have been noted for the “cowboy” swagger of its personnel, the new CIA is, in the words of one critic, composed of “cautious bureaucrats who avoid the risks that come with taking action, who fill out every form in triplicate” and put “the emphasis on audit rather than action.” Congressional meddling is primarily responsible for this new CIA ethos, transforming it from an agency willing to take risks, and act at times in a Machiavellian manner, into just another sclerotic Washington bureaucracy. This cautious, legalistic attitude has crippled the agency’s effectiveness and will not change unless the oversight committees of Congress acknowledge the uniquely executive character of intelligence and covert operations, and start to dismantle the cumbersome oversight apparatus erected during the last twenty five years.

Ultimately, the CIA’s ineffectiveness stems from the fact that it is, as its former Director Robert Gates observed, “in a remarkable position, involuntarily poised nearly equidistant between the executive and legislative branches.” In becoming a partner (if not outright owner) of the CIA, Congress has put itself in the uncomfortable position of having to approve of objectionable measures. This most democratic branch of government is simply not designed to make the tough and often distasteful decisions that are required of nations competing in the international arena.

The response to the disaster of September 11th starkly reveals that members of Congress are quite adept at invoking “plausible deniability.” They are often the first to criticize, and the last to accept responsibility, for failed U. S. policies and practices. Oddly enough, a restoration of executive control of intelligence could increase the potential that the president, or his immediate deputies, would be held responsible for the successes and failures of the intelligence community. But this is a secondary consideration, for only by restoring the executive branch’s power to move with “secrecy and dispatch,” and to control the “business of intelligence,” as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay put it in The Federalist, will the nation be able to deter and defeat its enemies.