The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture was immensely valuable. But it should have addressed Congress’s own failure to oversee these activities more effectively. By giving lawmakers a pass, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) weakened the very process of accountability her report was meant to enhance.
Feinstein was brave in resisting pressure to squelch her report, and she did the country a service. But with its thousands of pages, her investigation had one glaring weakness: Self-examination.
A more honest report would have squarely faced the arguments made by former CIA officials that key members of Congress were informed about interrogation practices and, far from objecting, condoned the very CIA activities we now judge to have been wrong.
“There’s great hypocrisy in politicians’ criticism of the CIA’s interrogation program,” wrote Jose Rodriguez, the CIA deputy director who oversaw it, in last weekend’s Washington Post. That allegation deserves a serious response, rather than the stonewall it got from Feinstein.
“The CIA briefed Congress approximately 30 times” on interrogation, according to six former CIA directors or deputy directors in an article Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal. “The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection.”
Are the former directors right? Not according to the Senate report, which claims: “The CIA has actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight of the program.” For example, the report notes that the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee wasn’t briefed about the brutal interrogation techniques until September 2002, a month after they were first used against Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah.
Let’s look at the 2002 complaint. A CIA review of “contemporaneous records” shows that this initial briefing to Sens. Bob Graham and Richard Shelby and Reps. Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi included “a history of the Zubaydah interrogation, an overview of the material acquired, the resistance techniques Zubaydah had employed, and the reason for deciding to use the enhanced measures,” along with a description of “the enhanced techniques that had been employed.”
Did the members of Congress push back hard, as we now realize they should have? Did they demand more information and set stricter limits? Did they question details about the interrogation techniques that were being used? It appears that, with rare exceptions, they did not. Like the CIA contractors and officers who devised the program, the Justice Department officials who endorsed the legality of the harsh techniques, and the Bush administration that authorized their use, members of Congress made mistakes. They were silently complicit. They just don’t own up to that fact.
The Senate report doesn’t hold members accountable. Instead, it blames others. This culture of blame-shifting and hypocrisy matters because it undermines oversight of intelligence activities: History (including the latest dark chapter on interrogation) suggests that members are for questionable activities when they’re politically popular, and against them when public opinion shifts.
I wish the interrogation program were the only issue where Congress fails to hold itself to the same standards it uses for others. But this is a way of life on Capitol Hill.
Take the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission. In addition to proposing a Director of National Intelligence to “connect the dots” in the executive branch, the panel urged reform of congressional oversight. Among the recommendations was consolidating authorization and appropriation authority in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Needless to say, the turf-protecting appropriations committees blocked the proposed reform.
“Congressional oversight for intelligence—and counterterrorism—is now dysfunctional,” the Sept. 11 Commission warned in 2004. The record has improved, as the Feinstein report shows. Hopefully, this marks a new era of oversight and accountability. But when it comes to self-criticism on intelligence matters, Congress has once again dropped the ball.