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The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

There is a political myth in Washington that the Senate and House intelligence committees, unlike other congressional committees, have been bipartisan and fair minded in their handling of political matters.  Now that the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) has gone rogue by providing sensitive exculpatory intelligence documents to the President of the United States, the subject of a committee investigation, we are told that the intelligence committee can no longer be considered bipartisan.  Well, we learned 25 years ago that the congressional intelligence committees were as politicized as any committee on the Hill.

The congressional intelligence committees were created in 1977 following recommendations of the Church and Pike committees that investigated crimes committed during the Vietnam War by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency.  These crimes included illegal domestic spying in violation of U.S. law throughout the war.  The intelligence committees were given responsibility for oversight of the intelligence community, which had been in the hands of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees from 1947 until 1977.

Needless to say, there was very little oversight during that period.  When CIA director Allen Dulles needed something from the Congress, for example, he went to the offices of Senator Richard Russell (D-GE), the chairman of the armed forces committee, where they drank bourbon together, and made sure the CIA got what was needed.  According to one member of the Senate committee, Senator Leverett Saltonstall (R-MA), “There are things that my government does that I would rather not know about.”

Following the crimes of Iran-Contra in the 1980s, the CIA finally received a statutory Inspector General (IG) to conduct oversight within the CIA. Statutory IGs were created at most government agencies in 1978 as part of the post-Vietnam reform
whitleblowerciaprocess, but the CIA was exempted from the law.  The Church Committee favored a statutory IG for the CIA, but the Carter administration bowed to pressure from the CIA and refused to support the proposal. Senate intelligence committee chairman, David Boren (D-OK), and CIA director William Webster opposed the creation of a statutory IG ten years later, but a bipartisan efforts led by Senators John Glenn (D-OH) and Arlen Spector (R-PA) finally convinced President George H.W. Bush to support the legislation.  President Bush, a former CIA director, reluctantly signed the law and used the signing ceremony to warn against the compromise of sensitive information as a result of the new Office of the Inspector General.  Bush then dragged his heels for more than a year before naming a statutory IG.

The end of the Senate intelligence committee’s reputation for bipartisan objectivity ended during the confirmation hearings for Robert M. Gates, who was nominated to be director of the CIA by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.  For the first time since the creation of the intelligence committees, the confirmation process was partisan and politicized.  The chairman of the Senate committee, Senator Boren, angered many members of the committee when he personally guaranteed Gates’s confirmation to White House aide C. Boyden Gray.  When confirmation was threatened by the extensive evidence of Gates’s politicization of intelligence while serving as Deputy Director of Intelligence and Deputy Director of the CIA, the White House instructed Republican members of the Senate intelligence committee to “go to the mat” for Gates.  The leading Republican staffer on the committee, John Moseman carried out his assignment, with no Republican voting against Gates.

The leading Democratic staffer on the committee, George Tenet, eventually became director of the CIA. Tenet immediately placed Moseman on the director’s executive staff.  In December 2002, it was Tenet who guaranteed that it would be a “slam dunk” to provide another Bush administration with the intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Just as there has been little external oversight of the CIA over the past twenty-five years, internal oversight by the CIA’s Inspector General has virtually disappeared.  Former President Barack Obama was responsible for weakening the role of the IG throughout the intelligence community, which made it more difficult to ensure the integrity and efficiency of government operations.  President Obama also make sure that there was no IG in place at CIA during much of his two terms in office.

In view of the partisan nature of the congressional intelligence committees and the decline in the role of the IGs throughout the intelligence community, it is obvious that only a select committee or an independent commission can investigate the possibility of collusion between Russia and the Trump administration in sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.  In view of the increased evidence of numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives as well as the efforts to cover up these contacts, it is essential to create an independent commission.  Even Senator John McCain (R-AZ) believes that “no longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone.”

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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. His latest book is A Whistleblower at the CIA. (City Lights Publishers, 2017).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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