The Iran-Contra affair raises again the issue of whether the United States can conduct covert operations within the constitutional framework of government. Covert operations can be a useful tool of U.S. foreign policy. But how can they be conducted both effectively and lawfully, consistent with the requirements of accountability in a democratic society?
Specially appointed select committees of the House and Senate addressed this question once before, in the mid-1970s, after revelations of controversial CIA activities. The inquiries led to the adoption of laws and procedures to control secret intelligence activities, including covert operations. Congress and three successive administrations, working together, created an interlocking system of statutes, executive orders and national security directives to provide for accountability. The two branches sought to ensure that covert operations would be conducted only with the prior authorization of the President, and with prior notice to congressional intelligence committees.
The experience of the past decade has shown that this system governing covert operations can both protect secrets and provide accountability--if procedures are respected. In the Iran-Contra affair, they were not. Flexibility to enable the President to deal with extraordinary situations was distorted beyond reasonable bounds. Officials, including the late director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Casey, withheld information, misled Congress and skewed intelligence to support the policies they were advocating. Laws intended to reflect a spirit of trust were abused; the commitment to consultation with the Congress was abandoned; the process broke down.
The House and Senate Iran-Contra committees believe that extensive new legislation is not the remedy for the abuse of covert operations in this affair. Rather, the answer lies in better attitudes by those who serve in public office.
The committees have made several recommendations:
First, covert operations are necessary in certain circumstances, but they should not be the preferred tool of foreign policy. They can supplement--but cannot replace--diplomacy and the normal instruments of foreign policy. Particularly close scrutiny should be given to paramilitary or military covert actions, because it is hard to keep them secret or to sustain public support for them. As former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane testified, "It is clearly unwise to rely on covert action as the core of our policy." Our government can gain and sustain support for its foreign policy only through open and public debate. Covert operations should not be used to change policy in secret and circumvent that debate.
Second, covert operations should be of the kind that the public would support if it were to know of them. They should be consistent with public policies of the United States. When covert operations run contrary to public policies, they damage American credibility and risk a major battle between Congress and the President. They also lead to policy failure.
Third, the United States should not rely on private individuals and funding to carry out its most sensitive business. All government operations, including covert operations, must be funded from appropriated monies or funds subject to the control of Congress. This is a principle at the heart of our constitutional system of checks and balances--and the best protection against future abuse.
Fourth, the intelligence function and policy-making function must remain separate if covert operations are to be successful. In the gathering, analysis and reporting of intelligence, conclusions should be based on the facts. Conclusions should not be based on what policy advocates hope the facts to be.
Finally, the agencies carrying out covert operations must deal in a spirit of good faith with Congress. New and ongoing covert operations must be reported fully, not cloaked by broad findings. Answers to intelligence committee inquiries that are technically true, but misleading, frustrate the process of legislative review. A dialogue that requires Congress to ask precisely the right question if it is to get the right answer is not dialogue at all, and is not a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.
Congress, in turn, has its own responsibilities. The intelligence committees alone review covert operations. Because their oversight is exclusive, the committees must be thorough. They cannot stop the President from initiating a covert action; the President is required by law only to inform the committees. But they are an important sounding board, and can point out potential policy pitfalls to the President. Had the Administration felt obliged to inform the intelligence committees, many of the mistakes in the Iran-Contra affair could have been avoided. Strengthening current laws requiring notification to the intelligence committees will help Congress perform its task better.
Congress also has a responsibility to ensure that sensitive information from the executive branch remains secure when it is shared with the Congress. The intelligence community generally has been pleased with security provisions of the intelligence committees. Nonetheless, a need exists for great consensus between the branches on the sharing and protection of information.
To provide for its defense, the United States needs not just a strong military, but effective intelligence as well, and the ability to influence developments abroad. A capable intelligence service, no less than a capable military, is fully compatible with democratic government when its actions are conducted in accordance with the principles of accountability and the rule of law.