There is a battle raging between Congress and the CIA this week. Intelligence oversight committees are accusing the spy bureaucracy of lying. The problem for the two panels is that these fights are being fought in two parallel and partisan universes.
For Democrats, the action was at the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence, where a bipartisan majority voted Thursday to declassify the executive summary of a massive report on the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation program. The report concludes that the CIA misled Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department on the efficacy of the harsh interrogations conducted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
For Republicans, the action is at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where Republicans have uncovered huge swaths of firsthand accounts from U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats that undermine the CIA’s initial assessment that the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi was a protest gone awry.
In both cases, the minority party on both committees thinks the majority is making a mountain out of a molehill. In both cases, the CIA is being accused of contradicting the analysis of its own rank and file that were in a better position to know the ground truth. And in both cases, the considered objections of the CIA’s oversight body will likely do little to diminish the power of America’s main spy agency.
“If you don’t do oversight in a bipartisan basis, the bottom line is you will have no impact on the intelligence community,” said Pete Hoekstra, who served as chairman of the House intelligence committee between 2005 and 2007.
Bill Harlow, who served as spokesman for former CIA director George Tenet, said these parallel investigations were examples of partisanship gone awry. “I find it offensive that Democrats accuse the agency of lying on important issues during the Bush administration and the Republicans accuse the agency of lying on other important issues in this administration,” he said.
Harlow has some proximity to the Senate and House investigation. While he was leading the agency’s public-affairs bureau under Tenet, the CIA was developing the enhanced-interrogation techniques that remain a source of controversy more than a dozen years later. These techniques—which include simulated drowning, slamming detainees up against walls, and sleep deprivation—have long been considered torture by human-rights groups and leading Democrats. A Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, based on millions of documents, found that the harsh techniques did not yield valuable intelligence and did not help eventually locate Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Harlow also helped former acting and deputy CIA director Michael Morell prepare his testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday. Morell told that committee that he helped edit what ended up being government-wide talking points on Benghazi that excised references to the attack being an act of terrorism or linked to al Qaeda. In his testimony, Morell acknowledged that he dissented from a cable from the CIA’s chief of station in Libya in the days after fighters over-ran a U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA base. Instead, Morell based his edits of the talking points on the assessment of CIA analysts in Washington, D.C. who said there was a protest that the chief of station said never happened.
Morell last year became the first senior CIA official to acknowledge that the harsh interrogation techniques the agency used were not consistent with American values. But like other top agency officials, he has also never conceded that the techniques were entirely useless and did not yield valuable intelligence.
Senate staffers, however, have found CIA analyses that did conclude just that. When they mentioned they possessed these documents, the CIA director ordered a search of the special computer network the agency set up for the Senate Democrats to research their report on the interrogation techniques and secret black sites where detainees were questioned.
One might think that these facts would prompt Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee to defend the prerogatives of Congress. But while most Republicans on the committee voted to declassify the report, the GOP will also be writing a dissenting opinion to the assessment. GOP committee staff have not even participated in the writing or research into the report after their party’s senators protested launching the probe four years ago.
One might also think that Democrats would be troubled to learn that the White House led the public to believe in the 10 days after Benghazi that U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by a protesting mob, when numerous human sources and signal intercepts said Stevens’ killers were terrorists linked to al Qaeda. After all, Democrats cried foul when they accused the Bush administration of cherry-picking intelligence it shared with the public before the Iraq War.
But come on, this is Washington. At the House hearing this week, Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky called the oversight hearing for Morell a “partisan smear campaign.” After a reluctant vote to declassify the Senate’s report Thursday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s intelligence committee, exercised some passive aggression. “Despite the report’s significant errors, omissions, and assumptions, as well as a lot of cherry-picking of the facts, I want the American people to be able to see it and judge for themselves,” he said.
The truth is that in both cases the CIA could use more rigorous oversight. Reasonable people can differ on Benghazi and waterboarding, but no members of Congress should allow the agency’s top officials to hide the views of the analysts and operators who are often in the best position to know the ground truth.
“Take a look at what has happened to the intelligence community in the last year,” Hoekstra said. “You’ve got Clapper coming out saying we don’t collect any data on Americans. Then you’ve got Keith Alexander, who heads up the largest cyberespionage organization we have that suffers the biggest cyberleak the world has ever seen. Then you have [CIA Director] John Brennan, who is investigating Senate intelligence committee staff, and then you have Mike Morell, whose testimony on Benghazi has no credibility at all.”
Hoekstra continued, “If there is any time you needed to do critical oversight, it’s now, because the threats are still very real and you have an intelligence community whose leadership has squandered the faith the American people had in it.”