A question, probably for our congressional staff readers:
In his recent New Yorker piece
on the Bush Administration's "redirection" in the Middle East, Sy Hersh recalled the Iran-contra
scandal as he reported on clandestine activities being conducted by the Department of Defense deliberately outside of the purview of the congressional intelligence committees:
Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal âlessons learnedâ discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. [Elliott] Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: âOne, you canât trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you canât trust the uniformed military, and four, itâs got to be run out of the Vice-Presidentâs officeââa reference to Cheneyâs role, the former senior intelligence official said.
. . .
âThis goes back to Iran-Contra,â a former National Security Council aide told me. âAnd much of what theyâre doing is to keep the agency out of it.â He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, âThe C.I.A. is asking, âWhatâs going on?â Theyâre concerned, because they think itâs amateur hour.â
The issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress. Last November, the Congressional Research Service issued a report for Congress on what it depicted as the Administrationâs blurring of the line between C.I.A. activities and strictly military ones, which do not have the same reporting requirements.
So here's my question: if an administration can avoid the congressional oversight mechanism put in place after the CIA abuses of the 1970s by shifting the covert activity to the Pentagon, cutting out the CIA, and running the operations out of the Office of the Vice President, is serious legislation pending to close this loophole?
I don't mean to concede the argument that in fact the intelligence oversight mechanism cannot legally be circumvented so easily. But set that aside. If there's a purported loophole that top level Bush Administration officials believe is big enough to run a black-bag squad through, is Congress taking steps to close that loophole?Late Update
: Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, responds:
In response to David Kurtz's question, Congress appears to be at an early stage of grappling with apparent loopholes in its oversight of quasi-covert actions conducted outside of established CIA channels.
Among the questions posed by the November 2006 Congressional Research Service report cited by Hersh are such elementary ones as these (at page 11): "How should Congress define its oversight role? Which committees should be involved?" Thirty years after the establishment of the intelligence oversight committees, one might have expected such questions to be answered long ago. But no.
That CRS report is available from the Federation of American Scientists here.