Sunday, May 21, 2006


Mything the Point of "Congressional Oversight"


There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about congressional oversight. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether "oversight" means “supervision,” or whether it means “lack of attention.” The Senate confirmation hearings for the new CIA Director are just the most recent example of this disturbing trend.

It certainly requires considerable oversight to overlook some of the questions Gen. Hayden refused to answer in open session. I’m sure some questions are answered best in private. However, it’s hard to believe he needs a closed session to say torture is not an acceptable method for interrogation.

For some reason, we are supposed to believe the appointment of Gen. Hayden heralds a sea change in the culture and operations of the CIA. Anyone trying to read the tea leaves for signs of change need look no further than this response: "I'm not Porter. I'm different from him. I'll probably end up doing some things differently." Parse that comment and it is clear he’s not promising very much. All he has to do to comply with that statement is take a different route to work in the morning, switch the brand of coffee they use for the office coffee pot, and wear a military uniform to work.

Pointing to that as evidence of change at the CIA would be a real stretch, but no one will ever be able to say he lied under oath. That’s important because we all know that has become the gold standard for accountability, responsibility and good governance with this administration. Everyone from the president on down has shown that anything goes as long as no one can prove you lied.

As bad as things are, I don’t think it’s fair to pin all the blame for this nonsense on the executive branch. When you consider Gen. Hayden's public statements of his respect for the unvarnished truth, transparency, adherence to rule of law, respect for congressional oversight, etc., you have to wonder why most senators were so reluctant to test that when they had him testifying under oath.

For example, Gen. Hayden claimed the NSA wiretapping system would have found some of the hijackers if it had been in place before 9/11. That is an interesting comment. Is he suggesting the FBI would have found two of the hijackers if they wiretapped the FBI informant who happened to be their landlord? Does he believe the NSA would have discovered the FBI was in possession of a laptop belonging to a man suspected of wanting to hijack airliners? Does he think that if the NSA had wiretapped itself they would have found the transcripts of calls between Al Qaeda operatives they failed to translate in a timely fashion? We’ll never know what Gen. Hayden meant because no senator bothered to ask him for any evidence to support his assertion.

It’s too bad the senators didn’t use this historic opportunity to cover substantive issues like constitutional encroachment. Their oversight on that issue serves as a confirmation of their newfound role as official innocent bystander. Here’s another line of questioning that no one bothered to pursue while they had Gen. Hayden testifying under oath:

He admitted he helped design the NSA wiretapping program.

He stated he was the top dog at NSA while the program was implemented.

He claimed he has never intentionally testified in a misleading way.

He claimed to respect the need for limiting programs to lawful operations.

He claimed he got legal advice for the program from many sources, including the Justice Department.

If all that is true, then here’s a simple question, "How do you reconcile all of that with the fact that a Justice Department effort to investigate the legality of the NSA wiretapping program was shut down by the NSA?" Answering that question is more than an exercise in “archeology” or hindsight. The answer to that question has direct implications for the future of domestic intelligence gathering under Gen. Hayden.

We already know that Big Brother is out there watching us. Total Information Awareness by any other name still operates with an incredibly broad sweep. Public statements about that program by both Gen. Hayden and Adm. Poindexter make it clear why they are interested in building the world’s largest database. They are trying to develop a Department of Precrime. The only difference between their version of the program and the one envisioned by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick is theirs will not be fettered by oversight, so they will never have to confront the uncomfortable problem of a Minority Report. I find it hard to believe that was an oversight.

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