The 1970s are calling

Rand Paul says he will call for the creation of a bipartisan committee to probe and reform the intelligence community. Paul wants the committee to “watch the watchers,” along the lines of the post-Watergate Church Committee in the 1970s.

This idea was well-received by Berkeley students, as you would expect. The Church Committee too was very popular in leftist circles.

The Church Committee was a response to serious abuses of power by the CIA, including assassination plots and spying on U.S. citizens for political purposes. The current calls for such a committee are a response to the potential for serious abuse arising from the scope of the activities of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, not to actual serious abuse.

Evidence that our intelligence agencies are using their data collection activities for political purposes, or otherwise to learn about citizens’ activities unrelated to possible terrorism, seems wholly lacking. The media trumpets widespread “violations.” But these violations, self-reported by conscientious employees, are technical in nature — e.g., not enough signatures obtained for a particular authorization or no new authorization obtained for continued surveillance of a suspected terrorist after he left the U.S.

We should also keep in mind the price the Church Committee imposed on our ability to spy on terrorists. According to Paul Bremer, who chaired a national commission on terrorism, the Church Committee did “a lot of damage to our intelligence services. James Woolsey, who headed the CIA, found that the Church Committee reforms, coupled with additional related restrictions imposed the Clinton administration, meant that “we were basically spying with one arm tied behind our back.”

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Church Committee was to empower, through the oversight process, Democratic Senators. This was not surprising. Church himself was a Democratic Senators.

The results have not been pretty. As Stephen Knott of the U.S. Naval War College tell us:

Congressional overseers have done their best to turn the intelligence community into the functional equivalent of the Department of Agriculture; that is, another hidebound bureaucracy subjected to pork-barrel politics. In this spirit, a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee forced the Defense Intelligence Agency to accept an intelligence gathering system that the agency did not want. . . .

Meanwhile, during the 1990s, the agency was condemned for its contacts with unscrupulous characters, as if the business of intelligence could be conducted via a back-alley rendezvous with the likes of Mother Teresa. . . .There’s a reason why America’s human intelligence capability prior to 9/11 was deficient – and a good part of that reason can be traced to the risk-averse overseers of Capitol Hill.

Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy used the power they obtained via the Church Committee to intimidate the CIA into the overly cautious posture that helped make 9/11 possible. They also leaked secret information egregiously. Leahy was kicked off the Intelligence Committee for doing so.

After 9/11, the congressional overseers backed off for a while. But their subsequent conduct has been at least as dishonorable as that of their pre 9/11 counterparts.

As Knott reminds us, Nancy Pelosi claimed in 2009 that “we were not, I repeat, not, told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.” But Pelosi was in fact told about the enhanced interrogation techniques in 2002, and remained silent until the media exposed the program in 2005. Moreover, says Knott, CIA officials have testified that some members of Congress pushed the agency to go beyond waterboarding to force captured members of al-Qaeda to talk.

Democratic politicians are now attempting to whitewash their endorsement of practices they deemed necessary and proper at the time, but which have since become unpopular with their base (including Berkeley students). Meanwhile, Senators create a diversion with complaints — perhaps valid, perhaps not — about the CIA “spying” on them.

As Rand Paul might say, “who will watch the watchers of the watchers.”

Knott concludes:

The congressional intelligence oversight experiment has been a failure. Too many committee members have proved that they are motivated by a destructive mixture of moral fastidiousness (when a threat subsides) and an all-encompassing desire to win reelection. . . .

Carved over the entrance to the Senate and House Intelligence Committee rooms should be the words: “The first to criticise, and the last to assume responsibility.”

Will another “bipartisan committee,” the reincarnation of Church’s, perform better? I see no reason to think so. And since there is no evidence of actual abuses remotely approaching the magnitude of those that led to formation of Church Committee, I see no good reason to go down that road again.

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