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Friday, May 19, 2006

USATODAY.com - Oversight? What oversight? Congress briefed, then gagged

When anti-terror programs of questionable legality are revealed — such as the National Security Agency's snooping on phone calls and records — President Bush hastens to point out that members of Congress from both parties have been "briefed."
 
That's as it should be. Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch's intelligence operations. From all indications, however, that oversight is badly broken.
 
Information is dribbled out to a handful of lawmakers. Briefing turns into political cover. Consultation becomes more like inform-and-gag. Republicans act like cheerleaders for the White House. Democrats feign surprise and outrage when dubious programs become public.
 
Wednesday's briefing of the Senate and House intelligence committees by the head of the NSA typifies the problems. It was overdue. It was spurred by partisan bickering. And, because members are sworn to secrecy, it has the effect of limiting how much they can say at today's Senate confirmation hearing for former NSA chief Michael Hayden to head the CIA.
 
It's not supposed to be this way. The intelligence committees were created 30 years ago to represent the public interest. They are one of the few checks on a system that must, by its nature, remain secret, and judging by history, has often gotten out of control. But the system has become so weak, Congress might as well be deaf and blind. There's plenty of blame to go around:
 
•The White House arbitrarily restricted its briefings, and a weak-kneed Congress didn't fight back. On the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program, the White House often briefed as few as four or eight members of Congress from both parties, instead of the entire intelligence committees.
 
•Democrats played helpless victims. Once The New York Times revealed the wiretapping program, for instance, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he'd had "concerns" as early as July 2003. His response? He wrote a letter to Vice President Cheney and put a copy in his safe.
 
Clearly, Rockefeller couldn't shout his objections from the Senate floor, but senators do have leverage to lobby colleagues and push for meetings with the president.
 
•Republicans have acted more like partisans than skeptical overseers. Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has been quicker to criticize news media and Democrats than to publicly question the NSA's eavesdropping or the collection of millions of phone records, as revealed by USA TODAY last week.
 
What to do?
 
Two former Senate intelligence committee leaders, Democrat Bob Graham and Republican William Cohen, say partisanship is sapping the panels of meaningful oversight.
 
Structural changes — such as dividing the committees equally between Democrats and Republicans, regardless of which party is in power — might help. So could a recommendation from the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, one that Congress has ignored, to give the intelligence committees more power over the intelligence agencies' budgets.
 
Ultimately, however, change involves trust and leadership. Committee members would have to jettison partisan rivalries and see their duty as representing the public interest and protecting against intelligence excesses.
 
Until they do, at a time when America is faced with tough choices between security and civil liberties, Bush administration officials are making the choices without any meaningful input from Congress. That seems to be the way they like it.
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