CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014.

CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Analysis: 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.

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 conductany 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?

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.