Intelligence Oversight and Partisanship

David Ignatius picks up on a point I raised last week. We need to have better oversight of our intelligence activities.

Reading the newspapers over the past week, you would have to conclude that this oversight system is broken. It was intended to set clear limits for intelligence activities and then provide bipartisan political support for the operatives who do the dirty work. Instead, the process has allowed practices that are later viewed as abuses — and then, once the news leaks, it has encouraged a feeding frenzy of recrimination against the intelligence agencies.

And then he goes on to identify one of the biggest problems with our intelligence committees–partisanship.

The oversight process has broken down in a deeper way: The intelligence committees have become politicized. Members and staffers encourage political vendettas against intelligence officers they don’t like, as happened when Goss brought his congressional aides with him to the CIA. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has become a political football; so has negotiation over legal rules on intercepting foreign communications, one of the nation’s most sensitive activities. The bickering has turned the intelligence world into a nonstop political circus, to the point that foreign governments have become increasingly wary of sharing secrets.

Now, perhaps there is some partisanship regarding the FISA debate that I don’t know about. That’s certainly the impression I got from Jane Harman’s words in this video (I originally figured it was a stab at people like me, who consider accountability a non-partisan issue, and who object to her constant search to get rolled to forge a bipartisan compromise on telecommunication immunity). But if anything, the FISA votes have been characterized thus far as very bipartisan, with the Blue Dogs making a majority with the Republicans. Mike McConnell’s last minute abandonment of the Democratic bill? That’s another thing, but not something we can blame the committee for.

But the other evil partisanship Ignatius mentions–Goss’ political vendettas, the attack on the Iran NIE’s conclusion–are Republican fights. Largely, Cheney’s fights.

I’m going to come back to this after I got to a meeting and do some Christmas shopping. But what’s really at issue here is that the Republican Party has become the party of propaganda. And when people question or expose their propaganda, it becomes a fighting issue.

I do think we’re entering a real discussion about Intelligence Oversight. But if one of the players is intent on creating propaganda, how is that discussion going to play out?

  1. Minnesotachuck says:

    The Bush-Cheney National InSecurity team’s efforts to impose results-driven intelligence analysis on policy was first exposed, to my knowledge, by USAF Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who posted as Deep Throat on Soldiers for the Truth while she was in the OSD as one of her last postings prior to her retirement. Even now her postings are fascinating to read. Results-driven analysis has been this administration’s thing from the get go, and the professionals who’ve seen their three-letter organizations’s trashed over the last seven years have found an opportunity for payback.

  2. JimWhite says:

    Sadly, I think the argument could be made that intelligence oversight had to become partisan when intelligence gathering became partisan. Cheney’s development of a parallel intelligence gathering capability got us into Iraq in an entirely partisan manner. It would be great if the oversight could restore a nonpartisan character to intelligence gathering, but it may take highly partisan actions to achieve this, precisely because of the propaganda function you note.

  3. selise says:

    But if one of the players is intent on creating propaganda, how is that discussion going to play out?

    if the other player (who is nominally in the majority) weren’t intent on not questioning the propaganda, there might be conflict, but at least there would be the possibility of oversight.

  4. klynn says:

    Excellent question. My fear lies in the fact that other players of oversight have also been politicized. I would only trust intelligence officers at the agency who have been consistent to the cause of intelligence through Dem and Rep presidents. Anyone else, a propaganda hack. Unfortunately, dividing our intelligence community is quite dangerous. The division started to happen when Bush/Cheney took office. Definitely results-driven anaylsis has been preferred by this administration.

    Amazing, a politicized DoJ and Intelligence agency?

    Are we looking at an independent review of intelligence officers in order to preserve those committed to impartial review of intelligence? How’s that for an oximoron? “Intelligence” and “impartial” in the same sentence…

  5. selise says:

    speaking of oversight… the senate judicary committee business meeting was scheduled to start at 10 am this morning. on the agenda is the vote for the rove/bolten contempt resolution and specter’s “compromise” fisa bill.

    sadly, i know of no way for us to listen. the sjc is not streaming it, c-span is not covering it and’s audio feed is still down. will have to wait for news reports unless anyone has another method i’m unaware of.

  6. jdmckay says:

    But if one of the players is intent on creating propaganda, how is that discussion going to play out?

    I don’t understand this… “creating propaganda” has been daily theme since 9/11. How many times has Bush gone in front of cameras to say Robb/Silberman commission exhonerated his admin’s “fixing” of intelligence? Or the torture videos the Senate viewed several years ago that made everyone sick, yet were “classified”? Or politicization of Gitmo prosecutions (eg: ramping ‘em up for ‘08 elections). Feith is still writing editorials… geezus.

    AFAIC “creating propoganda” has been done to saturating extent… across the board.

    It’s going to play out just like it always has, unless some of dem lawmakers grow some kahunas. At this point, I have -0- faith in their will and/or ability to turn the tide.

  7. merkwurdiglieber says:

    Since the creation of the intelligence oversight committees resulted
    from the Church Committee Hearings, the Republican line has been that
    oversight itself was political and have played it as such ever since.
    Add in Team B and “reform” at CIA, spin it 24/7 through Murdoch and a
    press that follows his lede and, yeah, how to overcome such an internal
    and external wurlitzer is a huge task. The election must produce a true
    mandate for such a rebuild, with larger majorities in Congress to do it.

    • bmaz says:

      The election must produce a true mandate for such a rebuild, with larger majorities in Congress to do it.

      A problem with this is that it presupposes electing more Democrats. But, THE biggest problem right now IS the Democrats. They are not doing their job, especially the leadership (I have long believed that “leadersheep” was very apt). The Democrats have become the “Hold and Fold Party”. The voters in this country know it too. So for everybody that thinks we are going to waltz into 2009 with newly crowned and enhanced majorities, time to wake up; that thought is being pissed down the drain rapidly. If the Democrats cannot seize the moment, and they have not only failed to seize, they have rejected the moment when it was served up on a silver platter, they are toast. If the Democrats can’t work to bring accountability for the past and hope for something different in the future, there is no reason to vote them a mandate and larger majority. The Republicans may be playing a losing game, but they are most definitely winning at it. The Democrats are playing a losing game and losing at it. Who do you think the greater American people, deep down, respect more?

  8. jdmckay says:

    The little publicized incident going back to Jan. ‘06 re:…

    Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, a central figure in the U.S. detainee-abuse scandal, this week invoked his right not to incriminate himself in court-martial proceedings against two soldiers accused of using dogs to intimidate captives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to lawyers involved in the case.

    comes to mind as another reminder of in-your-face evidence of torture coming from DOD upper echelons, yet entirely ignored (eg: no oversight). There were indications everywhere Miller was up to his ass in this stuff well before this article, yet no meaningful action to investigate… nothing. Miller’s pleading the “fif” (to borrow from Dave Chappelle) was barely anecdotal.

  9. joejoejoe says:

    I don’t think intelligence work product and intelligence pork should be kept in two separate committees. I think that as much as anything causes the process to break down. You can’t appropriate billions for wiretapping technology and then have the same people not want to play with their toys.

    I would try to limit the intelligence committe to asking “Do we have good intelligence in _____? How? Why or Why not? Repeat, Do we have good intelligence in ____” and then kick the legal issues to Judiciary, tech issues to Science and Technology, and just keep asking “Do we have good intelligence in ____?”.

    • emptywheel says:

      It’s an interesting suggestion.

      Though of course, a lot of the money and toys comes out of Armed Services now anyway, since so much of our intell is under DOD.

  10. brendanx says:


    On the other half of the page was a long, long Kissinger guest column saying exactly the same thing about the NIE.

    Translation of Ignatius/Kissinger:
    “Oversight” = neoconservative political control of intelligence products
    “Partisanship” = Democratic oversight of intelligence

  11. jayackroyd says:

    You know bmaz, I am as frustrated as you are. But the really deeply seated problem here is that there are no consciences on the Republican side. it’s true, there is an enormous leadership failure on the Democratic side.

    But now there are no Howard Bakers, Warren Rudmans, William Cohens. The craven lickspittles are the ultimate source of the problem.

    • bmaz says:

      Yep; I can’t disagree with that. I guess my beef is that if we are going to be ineffective, look like patsies and get rolled by the conscienceless Republicans; we ought to at least be standing up for what is right in the process. They are certainly fueling the fire as you say, but we sure aren’t doing enough to identify it and put it out. The Democratic leadership is assisting them. I dunno; it is just depressing.

  12. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Repubs = party of propaganda. Agree.

    Assuming that to be the case, there really can’t be a discussion of oversight until the Dems first ‘expose, decloak, and reveal’ the Republican propaganda.

    In other words, the Dems have to work through two phases: (1) expose the propaganda, and (2) see what lies beneath and perpetuates it. Until the Dems reveal the interests driving the propaganda, they can’t have meaningful discussions about what rules should be in place.
    Meanwhile, all Cheney only has to maintain the firewall/ propaganda.

    Random ideas about what may underlie the Republican/BushCheney propaganda:
    (a) BushCheney crimes (what if Bush and/or Cheney viewed those torture videos…?! evidence of sadistic conduct would require impeachment, whether the Dems want to go there or not).
    (b) multinationals that need to influence and control US government regulatory and legal resources.
    (c) Xtainist radical ‘enforcers’, who depend on US defense-related government contracts.

    BushCheney have one task: keep the lid on. They have no other options.
    The Dems have four tasks: (1) expose the crimes /frauds, (2) explain their significance, (3) implement a new set of standards, and (4) monitor the new standards, adjusting as needed. Dems face larger challenges, and much greater complexity; they also have FAR more opportunity.

    Meanwhile, the petty conflicts among committee staff only sink American interests. Every single day America fails to address climate-related problems that are already affecting crop production, water supplies, public health, business costs, etc, etc puts us in more danger.

    People with smarts and energy aren’t going to let themselves be hamstrung by committee-related vendettas; people sense that there’s an urgent need to move on. For Christ’s sake, even Huckabee’s surge embodies the growing levels of frustration.

    The longer those idiots sneak around knifing one another in the back, the worse for American interests.