Congress vs. Intel Agencies

Congress is divided in several political ways concerning the release of memos stemming from Russia-gate hearings; but since both chambers have now released several memos, let’s focus on the larger picture. That picture is Congress vs. Intel agencies, specifically CIA, FBI and NSA. A struggle between these two sides has begun. It’s in guarded language and high-sounding arguments, but it’s still a battle. Congress wants to assert more control, but only over outrageous and illegal behavior that has no place in a republic. It’s not even getting into the core of excessive surveillance and secret operations that mark the national security state. Yet, even its minimal lifting of the curtain that shrouds the intel agencies is enough to provoke stern warnings from the agencies. Their basic feeling, without of course saying so, is “You’ve let us get away with murder in the past. Leave us alone, so we can continue!”

The House released a memo out of the Nunes-chaired committee. The Senate released a heavily redacted memo too: “Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Monday released a memo referring Trump dossier author Christopher Steele for a criminal investigation that revealed that a friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton fed information for the Steele dossier.”

Senator Grassley “is now calling on the FBI to withdraw its redactions.” He’s become a point man in this battle, saying

“Seeking transparency and cooperation should not be this challenging. The government should not be blotting out information that it admits isn’t secret, and it should not take dramatic steps by Congress and the White House to get answers that the American people are demanding. There are still many questions that can only be answered by complete transparency. That means declassifying as much of the underlying documents as possible.”

The intelligence agencies are circling the wagons and counter-attacking. Their arguments have no merit, but in making them they reveal the battle, because why should these agencies, if they are so protective of the republic, be unwilling to root out any misdeeds and misdeed-doers? This is a major battle. At issue is who controls whom, Congress, the Executive branch or the intel agencies.

Congress has all the power of the purse. It taxes and spends. It funds the agencies. Congress created the CIA and the NSA via the National Security Act of 1947. It has the official power over these agencies. It exercises it through oversight. Congress can get any information whatsoever that it wants out of these agencies and publish as much of it as it sees fit. The FBI is part of the Department of Justice. The latter began by an Act of Congress on July 1, 1870. Before that, Congress had created an Office of the Attorney General in the Judiciary Act of 1789. Congress controls the FBI, however separated it is from the FBI’s operations and however much it chooses to keep its distance. The same goes for the CIA and NSA. Elections in this country choose members of Congress, not members of the agencies set up by Congress. Congress and the Executive jointly act on key posts within these agencies.

The counterattacks by intel personnel and by Congressional supporters of these agencies like Adam Schiff, who want the highest levels of intel secrecy and who want to maintain the highest level of intel independence from Congressional oversight, can be understood in this administrative and legal context. The (intel) tail wants to wag without the (Congressional) dog’s say-so, and it wants the dog not even to know that it’s wagging, and it wants to wag it in ways that suit its own views and not necessarily those of the rest of the government.

What are these counterattacks being made by those who want to cover up the enormous anti-Trump scandal, a scandal whose ramifications are just starting to be widely aired and made visible?

Listen to former CIA director Michael Hayden, who counsels resistance and stonewalling by the rank-and-file: “A senior official in justice or a senior official in intelligence needs to say, ‘We need to take a knee here. We need to take a deep breath'” Not the utmost cooperation out of duty to the country, not even cooperation, but “to take a knee”.

Hayden is saying that intel officials are in the position of lower-level people in an army who have an obligation to countermand orders to commit war crimes. He wants them to go against their superiors in Congress and withhold information. His claim is “What we are now doing is destroying the institutions we need to keep America safe.” He says “We are chiseling away at processes and institutions on which we currently depend — and on which we will depend in the future.”

This is a variation on the “national security” argument. He’s accusing the committees in Congress of compromising national security and betraying the republic and its safety. This is a ridiculous charge and an inflated claim. All we’ve learned so far from these memos is that personnel in the FBI seriously abused and misused their offices and power, deceived the FISA court and attempted to derail a candidate and an elected president. They are the ones who undermined national security, not those who are attempting to bring the law to bear against them and what they did so as to maintain the integrity of the system. The national security is being undermined by the intel agencies, not Congress.

Other critics of releasing the memos sound similar notes. Instead of wanting to clean up the stables, which will strengthen the system of government, and instead of the transparency that Senator Grassley is calling for, they want to protect the agencies from any incursions. We have Josh Campbell, a former supervisory special agent with the FBI, saying that “Partisan attacks undermine the agency and national security”. He views the Congressional release of memos as “Scorched-earth attacks from politicians with partisan goals”. In view of the clear evidence of wrongdoing by the FBI, this is complete nonsense!

“FBI director Christopher Wray and the second-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, had urged Trump to keep the memo classified and out of public view.” That tells us where they stand in this battle. The excuse of national security or keeping everything classified holds no water, as Grassley said. The agencies simply want to hold on to the power of secrecy that supports their power to act independently of Congress.

Adam Schiff takes the slippery slope position that declassification by Congress will lead to all sorts of declassification for political gain and loss. Maybe yes, maybe no, because there are both incentives and punishments to releasing secret information. (Note in passing that the president has the power to classify and declassify.) But even if we were flooded with currently secret information, wouldn’t that be an extremely positive development? Hasn’t the nation been led into war after war on the basis of keeping secret the misleading and phony sources of “information” that disturbed the public and fanned the flames of war? Hasn’t our security been hugely undermined by the secrecy that Schiff is so anxious to maintain and protect?

As this battle heats up, the intel agencies may target certain members of Congress and accuse them specifically of being traitors. This is the crude claim that some are already making in gussied up language. Then there is the ability of the intel agents to leak information that’s damaging to members. Keeping silent about it if they keep silent is a form of extortion. The battle can become very dirty through the use of personal attacks.


2:59 pm on February 6, 2018