It’s no consolation to point out that, if Congressional oversight of intelligence is “feckless” now, it has always been so. In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era, there is simply no excuse for supervision of the intelligence agencies — and the Homeland Security and Justice departments — not to be as good as Congress can possibly provide.
That isn’t the case today, as was first reported in Roll Call on March 30 and then in the Washington Post on Tuesday. The Post quoted University of Georgia Professor Loch Johnson, an expert on the subject, as saying that Congressional oversight “is still by and large feckless and episodic” and that 9/11 was a policy failure not only of the CIA, but of Congress as well, with “a really heavy onus on the intelligence committees.” Public hearings by the Congressionally created 9/11 Commission have featured no end of blame-casting — with former White House aide Richard Clarke pointing fingers at President Bush, Republicans pointing fingers at Bill Clinton, ex-FBI officials blaming Attorney General John Ashcroft and Ashcroft blaming commission member Jamie Gorelick. Only one witness, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, put any responsibility on Congress — in particular for voting to deny his agency the authority to extensively wiretap terrorist suspects.
The fact is that, since way back, Congress has been a dim bulb when it comes to intelligence oversight. For years, it allowed ex-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to run roughshod over the Constitution. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, it overreacted and hamstrung the agencies with “reforms” instituted by the committee headed by ex-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). More recently, the Judiciary committees failed to insist that Freeh’s FBI change its closed culture or even upgrade its computers.
As the Post pointed out, Congress cut the intelligence community’s budget every year from 1990 to 1996 and kept it flat from 1996 to 2000, forcing 25 percent cuts in personnel. According to the Post, CIA Director George Tenet has been listing Osama bin Laden as one of the top three threats facing the United States since 1997, but no one in Congress raised an alarm or insisted that assets be improved and focused on the Middle East.
What’s to be done? Almost everyone agrees that the eight-year term limit of service on the Intelligence committees needs to be scrapped so that Members don’t have to leave just as they become real experts. Congress should insist that the Bush administration fund the war on terror in regular order, not by supplemental appropriation, so that the Intelligence committees can make policy. And, the brutal partisanship that poisons ordinary life on Capitol Hill ought to stop at the locked doors of the Intelligence committees. If Republicans and Democrats can’t cooperate as patriots to prevent the next 9/11, what can they do right?