In 2007, reporter Charles Davis asked then-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee – Jay Rockefeller – about clandestine U.S. operations against a foreign government.
DAVIS: Reports quote administration officials as saying this is going on and it’s being done in a way to avoid oversight of the Intelligence Committee. Is there any way—
ROCKEFELLER: They’ll go to any lengths to do that, as we’ve seen in the last two days [during hearings on FISA].
DAVIS: Is there anything you could do in your position as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee to find answers about this, if it is in fact going on?
ROCKEFELLER: Don’t you understand the way Intelligence works? Do you think that because I’m Chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say I want it, and they give it to me? They control it. All of it. ALL of it. ALL THE TIME. I only get - and my committee only gets - what they WANT to give me.
This is shocking … but not new.
The NSA was created in secret … and Congress wasn’t even notified.
During the Vietnam war, the NSA spied on two prominent politicians: Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker. Church was the chairman of the committee investigating wrongdoing by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.
This power struggle burst into public view during the Church Committee hearings of the mid-1970s. The Senate hearings stunned the nation with revelations about CIA assassination plots and illegal activities. The result was the creation of congressional committees designed to give the lawmakers greater control over intelligence.
In the aftermath of the horrific September 11 attacks, however, President George W. Bush, aided and abetted by his powerful vice president, Dick Cheney, essentially gave the CIA [and all other intelligence agencies] a free pass to fight the ”war on terrorism.”
The battle erupted on the Senate floor on Tuesday when Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the intelligence panel’s chairwoman and normally a staunch CIA defender, denounced it for allegedly spying on committee investigators and violating the constitutional separation of powers.
The Senate investigators in that basement had discovered an internal CIA study that appeared to agree with many of the Senate report’s critical findings. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said the internal study “conflicts” with [CIA head] Brennan’s rebuttal. CIA officials suspected that the Senate investigators had obtained unauthorized access to the internal study, and yanked the documents from the basement computers. Feinstein said Tuesday that the CIA had not only searched the committee’s computers but had referred the matter to the Justice Department as a criminal case.
The White House has also withheld 9,400 documents from the Senate’s CIA torture investigation.
The Washington Times reported in 2006 that – when high-level NSA whistleblower Russell Tice offered to testify to Congress about this illegal spying – he was informed by the NSA that the Senate and House intelligence committees were not cleared to hear such information:
Renee Seymour, director of NSA special access programs stated in a Jan. 9 letter to Russ Tice that he should not testify about secret electronic intelligence programs because members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees do not have the proper security clearances for the secret intelligence.
(And see this.)
Former high-level NSA executive Bill Binney points out how absurd that statement is:
Russ Tice … was prepared to testify to Congress to this, too, and so NSA sent him a letter saying, we agree that you have a right to go to Congress to testify, but we have to advise you that the intelligence committees that you want to testify to are not cleared for the programs you want to speak about. Now, that fundamentally is an open admission … by NSA that they are violating the intelligence acts of 1947 and 1978, which require NSA and all other intelligence agencies to notify Congress of all the programs that they’re running so they can have effective oversight, which they’ve never had anyway.
It was widely reported in 2009 the CIA had hidden a major program from Congress.
To this day, Congress members get more information about NSA spying from reading the newspaper than they get in classified NSA briefings.
Congressman Justin Amash said that the NSA would only divulge information in classified briefings if Congress guessed at the right questions:
Amash said that intelligence officials are often evasive during classified briefings and reveal little new information unless directly pressed.
“You don’t have any idea what kind of things are going on,” Amash said. “So you have to start just spitting off random questions. Does the government have a moon base? Does the government have a talking bear? Does the government have a cyborg army? If you don’t know what kind of things the government might have, you just have to guess and it becomes a totally ridiculous game of twenty questions.“
A senior staffer for the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee – one of the biggest apologists for NSA spying- confirms Amash’s statement:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in August that the committee has less information about, and conducts less oversight of, intelligence-gathering that relies solely on presidential authority. She said she planned to ask for more briefings on those programs.
“In general, the committee is far less aware of operations conducted under 12333,” said a senior committee staff member, referring to Executive Order 12333, which defines the basic powers and responsibilities of the intelligence agencies. “I believe the NSA would answer questions if we asked them, and if we knew to ask them, but it would not routinely report these things, and in general they would not fall within the focus of the committee.”
In other words, the intelligence agencies are rogue.
Congress Not Informed that the Constitution Was More Or Less Suspended
But perhaps the most dramatic example of the Executive branch wholly stonewalling Congress occurred when Dick Cheney implemented “Continuity of Government” plans on 9/11. This created a “shadow government” which largely sidelined Congress and suspended the Constitution. But Congress wasn’t even informed.
As CBS pointed out, virtually none of the Congressional leadership knew that Continuity of Government (“COG” for short) had been implemented or was still in existence as of March 2002:
Key congressional leaders say they didn’t know President Bush had established a “shadow government,” moving dozens of senior civilian managers to secret underground locations outside Washington to ensure that the federal government could survive a devastating terrorist attack on the nation’s capital, The Washington Post says in its Saturday editions.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told the Post he had not been informed by the White House about the role, location or even the existence of the shadow government that the administration began to deploy the morning of the Sept. 11 hijackings.
An aide to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he was also unaware of the administration’s move.
Among Congress’s GOP leadership, aides to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), second in line to succeed the president if he became incapacitated, and to Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) said they were not sure whether they knew.
Aides to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) said he had not been told. As Senate president pro tempore, he is in line to become president after the House speaker.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Friday he can’t say much about the plan.
“We have not been informed at all about the role of the shadow government or its whereabouts or what particular responsibilities they have and when they would kick in, but we look forward to work with the administration to get additional information on that.”
Indeed, the White House has specifically refused to share information about Continuity of Government plans with the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. Congress, even though that Committee has proper security clearance to hear the full details of all COG plans.
Specifically, in the summer 2007, Congressman Peter DeFazio, on the Homeland Security Committee (and so with proper security access to be briefed on COG issues), inquired about continuity of government plans, and was refused access. Indeed, DeFazio told Congress that the entire Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. Congress has been denied access to the plans by the White House.
(Or here is the transcript).
The Homeland Security Committee has full clearance to view all information about COG plans.
DeFazio concluded: “Maybe the people who think there’s a conspiracy out there are right”.
University of California Berkeley Professor Emeritus Peter Dale Scott points out that – whether or not COG plans are still in effect – the refusal of the executive branch to disclose their details to Congress means that the Constitutional system of checks and balances has already been gravely injured:
If members of the Homeland Security Committee cannot enforce their right to read secret plans of the Executive Branch, then the systems of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution would seem to be failing.
To put it another way, if the White House is successful in frustrating DeFazio, then Continuity of Government planning has arguably already superseded the Constitution as a higher authority.
Postscript: Whistleblowers allege that the intelligence agencies are blackmailing Congress.
In any event, the courts don’t have any oversight over the intelligence agencies either:
- A Federal judge who was on the secret spying court for 3 years says that it’s a kangaroo court
- Even the current judges on the secret spying court now admit that they’re out of the loop and powerless to exercise real oversight.
- When these judges raised concerns about NSA spying, the Justice Department completely ignored them