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Intelligence Oversight in Free Fall

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- Whatever else one might say about America's accident-prone intelligence agencies, it seems clear that the system of congressional oversight that was established in the mid-1970s to supervise them isn't working.

Right now, we are getting the worst possible mix -- a dearth of adequate congressional scrutiny on the front end that could improve performance and check abuses, and a flood of second guessing at the back end, after each flap, that further demoralizes and enfeebles the spies.

Congress silently blesses the CIA's harsh interrogation tactics, for example, and then denounces the practices when they become public.

It's supposed to be the other way around: When the Senate and House intelligence committees were created in 1975 after exposes of wrongdoing, the premise was that Congress would provide an independent but discreet arm of accountability. Elected officials were to be briefed on the dirty business, with the understanding that they would maintain the same bonds of secrecy as the intelligence community itself.

The intelligence committees were meant to be bipartisan. And to avoid the usual congressional logrolling, they weren't permanent committees at first. Back then, the congressional leadership expected it would be difficult to get anyone to serve very long on the intelligence panels, because the members wouldn't be able to talk about what they did.

Congressional oversight of intelligence was a radical idea. Some experts questioned whether it was realistic to ask elected officials to sign off on the work of intelligence agencies -- which, when you strip away all the high-minded language, basically involves the systematic violation of other countries' laws. Intelligence agencies steal other nations' secrets, bribe their officials into committing treason, intercept their most private conversations. And that's just the easy, noncontroversial stuff. We haven't gotten to interrogation techniques.

Reading the newspapers over the past week, you would have to conclude that this oversight system is broken. It was intended to set clear limits for intelligence activities, and then provide bipartisan political support for the operatives who do the dirty work. Instead, the process has allowed practices that are later viewed as abuses -- and then once the news leaks, it has encouraged a feeding frenzy of recrimination against the intelligence agencies.

That misfiring of oversight was described in The Washington Post last Sunday by Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen. Their article described some of the background to last week's congressional uproar over the CIA's destruction of so-called "terror tapes" that had been made during harsh interrogations of captured al-Qaeda terrorists. It turned out that back in September 2002, four top members of the intelligence committees -- including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is now House speaker -- had been given a "virtual tour" of CIA interrogation facilities overseas. They heard descriptions of some of the harsh techniques that would be used, including the now-infamous practice known as waterboarding.

"Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing. And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement," former Rep. Porter Goss told the Post reporters. He attended the 2002 briefing, along with Pelosi, as chairman of the House intelligence committee. He later served from 2004 to 2006 as CIA director.

The Post article quoted sources as saying that CIA officials gave the intelligence committees about 30 briefings on interrogation techniques before waterboarding became public in 2005. To her credit, Rep. Jane Harman filed a classified letter protesting aspects of the interrogation program when she replaced Pelosi in 2003 as the committee's top Democrat.

Congressional review should have prevented waterboarding, a form of torture the CIA should not have been using. But in the feverish atmosphere of 2002, even liberal members of Congress apparently could listen to briefings without sounding an alarm. That should be a caution against any easy, retroactive finger-pointing.

The oversight process has broken down in a deeper way: The intelligence committees have become politicized. Members and staffers encourage political vendettas against intelligence officers they don't like, as happened when Goss brought his congressional aides with him to the CIA. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has become a political football; so has negotiation over legal rules intercepting foreign communications, one of the nation's most sensitive activities. The bickering has turned the intelligence world into a nonstop political circus, to the point that foreign governments become increasingly wary of sharing secrets.

The CIA makes too many mistakes. It is too cautious and bureaucratic.

It tolerates too much mediocrity. But looking at the process of oversight -- the retroactive blame game masquerading as accountability -- is it any wonder that the CIA needs help? This process is broken, and the next administration should think creatively about how to fix it.

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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