Because the executive branch retains a stranglehold on regulations about the disclosure of classified information, there are very few ways for member of Congress who learn about objectionable, classified programs to reveal their discomfort. They can write a classified letter. They can risk prosecution by revealing the information publicly. Or they can do what a gaggle of House Democrats did yesterday: band together, suggest that the CIA misled them about a specific program, and wait for journalists to uncover the details.
In some ways, this last route is a reasonable accommodation of competing interests. If Congress believes the CIA's program is or was illegal and unethical, the single way to ensure that the program -- or the values that informed the program -- never surfaces again is to utilize public pressure, or the threat of public pressure. Transparency often conflicts with efficiency.
It's inevitable, now, that we'll soon be provided with a fairly full accounting of the covert program that director Leon Panetta discovered, stopped, and brought to Congress's attention. All the major intellireporters are on the trail. There are plenty of former IC folks who are willing to hint about the details, provided they're asked the right questions.
I don't know what the program is. No one I asked would shed any light on it. From the reports of others, though, and from guesswork derived from a knowledge of what the CIA is chartered to do (provide exclusive political intelligence (that can only be clandestinely obtained) to our political leaders about major developments), I can come up with a few possibilities.
1. We know the program had nothing to do with the terrorist interrogation program or with extraordinary rendition. We know that it was primarily a CIA program, which means that it probably did not have anything to do with Sy Hersh's "executive assassination" ring disclosures, which relate to special access programs of the Department of Defense's Joint Special Operations Command. (Basically, if the CIA wants to kill someone, it requires a finding of Congress. The Bush administration believed that the DoD could kidnap or kill suspected terrorists under the president's inherent authority.)
2. The program was not primarily a technical collection program, but it may have involved the use of technology to collect information from human sources.
3. Newsweek's sources seem to suggest that the program was related to the war on terrorism, but it might simply have been informed by the CIA's other war on terrorism programs. That is, perhaps the CIA borrowed controversial techniques and applied them to another main target, like, say, China, or Israel (yes), or Pakistan or Afghanistan or India or Venezuela.
4. What type of program would be acceptable to President Bush and objectionable to President Obama?
One can guess: perhaps the CIA found a way to covertly place information implicating Hamid Karzai's brother in various drug-related offenses in the foreign media.....perhaps the CIA was covertly providing funds to an opposition candidate in Afghanistan or Pakistan in a way that was bound to be discovered by the regime we officially support. Perhaps the CIA created a front company to process, say, the encryption keys that Israeli's Air Force uses to protect communications. (Israel manufacturers this stuff endogenously, but you can be sure that the American government wants to know everything it possibly can about Israeli Air Force strategy vis-a-vis Iran.) Perhaps the program involved sabotage in a country like Syria, which the U.S. is currently trying to court. Perhaps it involved the planting of covert communications devices on unwitting international scholars who travel to North Korea.
The mind wanders.
What's clear is that Democrats on the committee were sufficiently outraged by the disclosure to make public the fact that something was disclosed. This may be the only way to hold the CIA accountable in an era where the executive branch refuses to relax briefing procedures. It may be irresponsible and jeopardize ongoing operations. It may be related to the CIA v. Pelosi grudge match. Soon enough, we'll have our answers.