March 5, 2014– You read it here first! I’ve commented repeatedly in this space on the enormous gaps in, and frailty of, congressional “oversight” of U.S. intelligence. The point has been made repeatedly in my coverage of the National Security Agency scandal but it also appears in pieces I’ve posted about the CIA. Now we’re back in the soup again. The McClatchy News Service first reported, and today’s New York Times confirms, that the CIA, far from acquiescing in the legal right of Congress to oversee the agency, has been spying on Congress.
A month ago a fairly extensive analysis appeared here (“Should We Depend on Intelligence Oversight,” February 1, 2014) on the byplay between the agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program and its black sites. That column discussed how the agency was sitting on the Senate report, refusing to send it back for public release, because CIA careers and rice bowls are on the line. The new Times report indicates the spooks went further than that–CIA officials hacked the computers which it, itself, insisted that Senate committee staffers use in examining the documents it provided to investigators. This attempt to find out how the Senate discovered internal CIA documents which contradict the agency’s official position (that the conclusions of the Senate inquiry are wrong) is a violation of criminal law.
Sources have confirmed that the agency’s Inspector General has conducted an investigation into this spying. The latest information is that the IG has referred suspects in the case to the Justice Department.
All of which is the very antithesis of the principle of oversight. Here we have the watchers spying on those whose charge is to monitor them. This new excess joins an already lengthy list of irregularities that I documented in my book The Family Jewels . “Chilling” barely covers the implications here.
On March 4 Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) wrote a letter to President Obama regarding the torture report’s release, alluding to the impropriety, and requesting that CIA be stripped of the authority to rule on declassification of the document. This is a follow-up to a letter back in January to which Obama never replied.
So guess what? We’ve been here before. The whole notion that an executive branch agency has the authority to regulate what information can be released by Congress is a product of the “Year of Intelligence,” the time of The Family Jewels. More specifically that custom arose from the dealings between the CIA, President Gerald Ford, and the House Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by New York Representative Otis G. Pike, who recently passed away (see “We Miss His Integrity Already,” January 22, 2014). It is a fiction.
So all can understand just what happened here let me relate that story. Pike’s committee had a broader writ than the Senate torture investigation. It was empowered to look into every aspect of U.S. intelligence. The CIA loathed the whole thing. On the other side of Capitol Hill a similar committee under Idaho Senator Frank Church was doing the same thing. Just as with the recent torture investigation the CIA laid down ground rules for what the inquisitors could see. It even drafted the texts of secrecy agreements congressional staff were supposed to sign before being granted access. Their actions were closely monitored by the White House. President Ford designated his counselor, John O. Marsh, to ride herd over the whole thing, backed by none other than Dick Cheney, then the deputy assistant to the president (his boss at the time was Donald Rumsfeld).
At Langley, CIA headquarters, there was early confidence that the agency could keep the lid on the investigations. But these gradually developed their own leads (the Church inquiry into assassinations, for example) and went in directions the agency feared. At a hearing on September 10, 1975, the Pike committee let out four words of a National Security Agency cable that was top secret. The Ford administration seized the opportunity to demand that the committee return all classified documents in its possession and refused to provide any further information. It did not matter that Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, had given the same information to reporters already.
This maneuver led to a major crisis between the Congress and President Ford. Then, as now, the administration had its spies on Capitol Hill, in this case the Republican members of Pike’s committee. But the White House was aghast to discover that even their congressional allies agreed that the committee had the right to any information it required to fulfill its duty. At the White House Jack Marsh crafted an “action plan for the defense of the agency.” As a CIA lawyer observed on September 22, “The Action Plan is much broader than simply the confrontation . . . . It deals with the future in terms of Executive and congressional oversight.” The Pike committee insisted upon its prerogative to release any information it considered necessary. It began considering Contempt of Congress citations for officials. It subpoenaed documents.
Ford sought legal advice, in house, from the Department of Justice, and CIA did its own analysis. White House lawyers did not give him much comfort. In a September 23 memorandum the president was told that Congress might not have the power to declassify information, “but it has the power to publish the document in its possession.” The Attorney General advised that the president could withhold information–and Henry Kissinger demanded it–but as a political matter that represented the highest risk option.
The same day Pike Committee lawyers told their principals, “the CIA is a creature of Congress, created by statute of Congress . . . . In other words, notwithstanding that the agency is a member of the Executive Branch it is created by Congress. If the subpoena is defied it raises the spectre of Frankenstein. That is, an agency created by Congress, funded by Congress is set loose in the world without any ability of its creator to control its acts, let alone examine them.” Pike stood his ground.
A sort of negotiation ensued. Some of the subpoenas were flawed, being addressed improperly (to the National Security Council for State Department information, for example), but the Pike committee was properly constituted, had the power to do this, and could legitimately regard any less than full response as failure to comply. Finally the sides cobbled together an arrangement under which the CIA would “lend” its documents, and before releasing anything to the public, the Pike committee would “consult” with the president on whether there was any national security objection to their release. President Ford adopted the device of asserting executive privilege each time one of these issues came up.
There is much more. The crisis went on into January 1976. Pike sought a contempt citation against Kissinger. Ford suppressed the Pike Report itself. Significantly, the legal advice then was that the president might succeed with a national security claim but that this dispute between Executive and Congress might very well be held a “political question” by the courts, so Ford’s chances were no better than 50-50. The president instead took the course of lobbying the House to vote against releasing Pike’s report, and in that he succeeded.
It is significant that in the draft recommendations which Otis Pike sent to his committee members on December 19, 1975, he included the provision that “Each such committee [dealing in national security] should be authorized to recommend that specific classified facts and documents be made public . . . after . . . giving careful consideration to the judgment of the executive branch,” with the final determination to be made by senior House leaders. This did not survive into the final set of recommendations, which instead provided that “classification of information be the subject of the enactment of specific legislation.” Forty years later, Americans still lack that protection against malfeasance and abuse.
(Note: I shall tomorrow post the Pike draft recommendations as a Hot Document on this site.)
Bottom line? President Ford relied upon the power of executive privilege to keep the documents secret, not on national security per se. The Pike Report was spiked as a political act, not a matter of security classification. The Church Committee did, in fact, release its Assassinations Report over Ford’s objections. And Section 4 of Senate Resolution 400, passed in 1976 to create the Senate Intelligence Committee, explicitly provides for the committee to declassify information, under a procedure similar to what appears in Pike’s draft recommendation.
The latitude Congress has given the Executive Branch in the release of national security information is a courtesy, not a matter of law. There is apparently some inkling of this within the Obama administration right now. The journalist Jason Leopold filed suit against the Department of Justice last September to compel the declassification of the 300-page executive summary of the Senate torture report. This past January the Department moved for a summary dismissal of the suit on the grounds that the Senate report is a “congressional record” and not an agency document.
The Central Intelligence Agency no longer deserves to be accorded courtesy in the matter of the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report. The Senate should simply release its investigative study. Forthwith.