Kevin Siers’ brilliant cartoon of January 27 threw the spotlight on what is shaping up to be the tragi-comical role of North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr, as the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Burr is trying to seize from the White House and the Executive Branch all copies of the highly classified 5000-page report on CIA torture of detainees – an executive summary of which was released publicly by his committee back in December – in a vain effort to put the genie back in the bottle. Will he also demand that the damning summaries re-printed in national newspapers be retroactively classified and erased from public memory?
Burr’s real aim is to expunge from the public record the CIA “black site” operations authorized by the Bush-Cheney administration, and to rub out the culpability of individual CIA agents in unproductive heinous acts of brutality and in the deliberate destruction of the recordings of the interrogations.
In an absurd effort to bottle up history, Sen. Burr is also endeavoring to make us forget his own previous vote to coverup the embarrassing facts. Despite his suggestion that he may hold some open hearings on the activities of the intelligence community, he has smugly proclaimed: “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the Intelligence Committee should ever be discussed publicly.” Yet, the several bureaucracies he is supposed to oversee spend on the order of $50 billion annually!
Burr has said he wants to redesign the committee’s approach to provide “oversight functions in real time.” Does this mean he will insist on prior notice of (significant anticipated) covert operations? The principles of the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980 still apply: On all important intelligence activities, the full memberships of the Senate and House intelligence committees must be informed in advance. The exception comes in times of emergency, when only the “Gang of Eight” must be informed in advance.
However, these black-and-white legal rules have been honored more in the breach than in the commission during the Bush and Obama administrations. Despite the public feud between CIA Director John Brennan and the Senate committee, the two branches of government have largely compartmentalized their differences, giving the agency congressional backing on a range of covert programs, including drone strike assassinations and paramilitary exercises. There are no checks and balances outside the executive branch, if Sen. Burr (and his Democratic counterpart) lack the fortitude to object. Here is where the rubber hits the road; and the senator is entrusted with potential real influence.
Based upon my own sources in the field of intelligence, all “significant anticipated” operations – as a rule – are still reported by the president, in writing, to the Senate and House Intelligence committees’ “Gang of Eight” (the chair and ranking minority member of the two committees; and the two leaders of the Senate and of the House). But one consequence of Brennan – and not President Obama – now making the final drone strike decisions is that the law requiring prior presidential notification of such covert actions is being re-interpreted, so that the written orders are allowed to be “generic” or worldwide. That is, open ended – such as, for example, permitting strikes against suspected terrorists in all of Pakistan, or Yemen, or Somalia.
The president is bundling his notices of “significant anticipated” clandestine operations, making accountability for specific operations illusive. These “findings” may be reported to the intelligence committees prior to a set of strikes. This practice is hardly consistent with the letter and spirit of the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980. Bear in mind that each one of these covert action “strikes” is fraught with potentially grave consequences for American foreign policy.
Unlike the War Powers Act restrictions on deployment of troops into combat, who is to hold the CIA director and the president accountable for covert actions when the bureaucratic procedure itself, and the substantive decisions, are super secret?
Sen. Burr is part of a secret national security state that is not subject to normal constitutional checks and balances, eroding Madisonian democracy. Therefore, he warrants special oversight by his constituency.
Who governs in Washington?