Why Does Congress Lack the Backbone to Oversee the CIA?

The spy agency should pay a price for its intransigence. But not enough legislators are willing to defend the oversight role of their colleagues.
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Ongoing efforts to make public a report on torture perpetrated by the CIA has the spy agency "nearly at war" with its Senate overseers, Eli Lake reports in The Daily Beast. In theory, that would mean that the CIA is in deep trouble. Congress has the power to destroy the CIA if it desires. Congress could cut the CIA budget to zero! Yet the press is filled with stories about the CIA and its overseers written as if they are on equal footing, or even as if the CIA has the upper hand. 

Why?

One reason is that so many members of Congress are disloyal to the legislature, or at least the legislative branch as James Madison envisioned it: a body jealously guarding its power while fulfilling its sacred responsibility to oversee the executive branch. Other legislators fulfilling their oversight responsibilities are undermined by these colleagues, who have been co-opted by the national-security state.

This isn't to say that there aren't legitimate disagreements within the legislature about the CIA budget, whether or not various reforms ought to be implemented, the overall performance of the agency, or many other questions besides. But the dispute unfolding right now concerns the degree to which the Senate Intelligence Committee can fulfill its oversight role, and its power vis-a-vis the CIA. 

Every legislator who values the constitutional role assigned to the branch they joined ought to be rallying together as one against Langley's intransigence, even if the version of events friendliest to the CIA turns out to be accurate. 

The short version:

  • While writing its torture report, senators and their staffers were forced by the CIA to work in a secure room in Virginia, rather than a secure room at the Senate, which added significant time and expense to their oversight work.
  • Senate staffers working in that CIA room, inside a database of documents provided by the CIA, discovered information about torture generated within the agency that contradicted its official statements to the U.S. Senate.
  • Senate staffers took what they insist is proof of the discrepancy.  
  • The CIA maintains that the staffers were not allowed to access or remove that information, and argued that the Senate staffers should be investigated. 
  • Senate staffers say the CIA only knew the documents were taken because it spied on its overseers as they were drawing up the report.

Every senator ought to be up in arms. Even the members of Congress most trusting of and deferential to the national security state, folks like Representatives Peter King and Mike Rogers, ought to have their legislative colleagues' backs, if only to preserve the ability of the legislature to fulfill one of its vital roles. 

Instead, the chain of legislative solidarity has weak links everywhere.

As a result, the CIA gambled that it could can spy on, antagonize, and obstruct its overseers, denying them relevant documents and even trying to get them in legal trouble for doing their jobs. The fact that the CIA believes this might work is problematic. It shows how backward the relationship between agency and overseer has become. Not that this should surprise us. Give someone an inch and they take a mile. Let them get away with illegal torture and what did we expect?

Americans may get lucky. The inspector general of the CIA has referred the spying allegations to Justice Department to investigate. The legislative branch should conduct its own probe. And if it's been jerked around in any way, the CIA should pay a price.

As Ed Morrissey writes, "This is among the worst possible accusations that could be levied against an intelligence service in a constitutional republic. For the CIA, it would be doubly worse, since the CIA’s charter forbids it to conduct any kind of domestic intelligence; that jurisdiction belongs to the FBI, and it’s significantly limited. The legislature oversees CIA, not the other way around, and if the CIA is snooping on their oversight work, that would undermine their authority."

Why doesn't every last member of Congress see that?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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