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Secrecy Isn't the Washington Norm

Government: For the intelligence oversight committees to work effectively, keep partisanship away.

May 11, 1997|MARVIN OTT | Marvin Ott is a former professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

The real story in the long, almost concluded effort to confirm a new Central Intelligence director is the disintegration of intelligence oversight itself.

Two months ago, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence turned the confirmation hearings for Anthony Lake into a political circus. There may be nothing remarkable about that in the normal course of Senate business, but oversight of the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community is not normal business.

Most governments, including most democracies, have traditionally given intelligence agencies broad exemption from the rules that apply to other government institutions, including immunity from any legislative review. National security requires an effective intelligence capability, so the argument goes. If that can only be achieved by placing, in effect, the responsible agencies outside the framework of democratic institutions, so be it.

The U.S. approach has been strikingly different. Congress has insisted on asserting its constitutional authority over intelligence budgets, policies and practices. But oversight by the entire Congress is not practical if any semblance of intelligence secrecy is to be maintained. The answer has been a uniquely American innovation: the Select Intelligence committees of the House and Senate.

Congress, as a whole, agreed to delegate oversight to two committees whose members would be specially selected and who would be supported by an expert staff subject to rigorous security screening before being hired. The committees would operate largely in camera and would have access to virtually all the secrets of the intelligence community.

For two decades this system has worked remarkably well--so much so that several countries including Britain, Canada and Germany have tried to replicate it. But the whole thing depends on two critical ingredients on the part of the oversight committees: competence and nonpartisanship. The Senate committee is a case in point. Since its inception, it has been the only genuinely nonpartisan committee in the Senate. The chairman from the majority party and the vice chairman from the minority acted, in effect, as cochairmen.

Behind the sealed doors of the committee, out of sight of the press and the public, members conducted their business as colleagues, not partisans. Professional staff was typically selected with no reference to political affiliation. In a partisan-crazed institution like the Senate, the committee's neutrality has been a remarkable achievement.

But with the advent of the 105th Congress in January came a new chairman. Alabama Republican Richard Shelby has from the outset conducted the committee's business as if it were no different than the Committee on Pork and Privilege. Communication between Republican and Democratic staffers has broken down. New staff has been hired with a keen eye to party loyalty. Experienced staff has been leaving the committee as fast as they can find new positions. In the process, the committee has lost perhaps its most precious asset: its institutional memory.

Partisanship and intelligence oversight simply won't mix. Rigorous intellectual integrity is the coin of the intelligence realm. The only intelligence community worth having is one that calls the facts and their implications as it sees them with no heed to the consequences. The moment policymakers (or senators) conclude that intelligence is being trimmed to fit the policy or political winds, the intelligence agencies might as well be closed down.

The CIA today is already a wounded institution. Budget cuts, looming personnel reductions, two recently revealed traitors in its midst all exacerbate a pervasive sense of disorientation as the Cold War mission has faded. Such an agency badly needs the help of congressional oversight committees that are professional and at the top of their game. The last thing the CIA needs is overseers wielding competing political demands.

The battle over Tony Lake's nomination was particularly disquieting from this perspective. The vitriolic partisan exchanges among committee members during the public portion of the hearings were without precedence. Meanwhile, the new chairman has hired a staff director with no congressional and only narrow technical intelligence experience.

Congress is not renowned for cutting edge institutional innovations, but in the arena of intelligence oversight there have been some remarkable achievements. Now, replace nonpartisanship with partisanship, experience with inexperience, and you have the perfect formula to destroy the intelligence oversight process that was so carefully and laboriously built up over the last two decades.

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