N.J. Congressman Calls for Next Church Committee Investigation of CIA Criminal Activities

[Maybe it's time to start writing our congressmen again?]

Holt Calls for Next Church Committee on CIA

Congressman Calls for Broad Inquiry Into Intelligence Agency

By Spencer Ackerman 7/27/09 6:00 AM
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) (rushholt.com)Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) (rushholt.com)

After years of examining CIA operations of dubious legality, an important member of the House intelligence committee is exploring an option that many in the intelligence community view with apprehension: a comprehensive investigation of all intelligence-community operations over years and perhaps even decades. The model is the famous Church and Pike committees of the 1970s, which exposed widespread CIA lawlessness; created the modern legal and congressional oversight structures for intelligence; and cleaved the history of the CIA into before- and after- periods.

Illustration by: Matt MahurinIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a progressive who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and chairs a special oversight panel that helps write the intelligence budget, has been increasingly comfortable talking about a new “Church committee.” He floated the idea in an interview with TWI on July 14, again to the Newark Star-Ledger the next day, and even attempted to discuss the Church committee’s precedents for congressional oversight with Lou Dobbs on CNN on July 20.

“I’d like to see something on the scope of the Church committee,” Holt told TWI in a Friday phone interview. The congressman said that it had been a  “few decades” since Congress took a comprehensive inquiry into the intelligence community’s impact on “the relationship between the individual and her or his government, as well as the role that the U.S. plays in other countries around the world, outside of declared military activities.”

Holt said he did not have a concrete proposal prepared for the creation of such an investigation, and was at the stage of seeing what colleagues and members of the intelligence community made of such a move. “There’s agreement with the idea,” he said. “An awful lot of people have not really thought about how many unanswered questions there are or unresolved issues there are out there about how we do intelligence in the United States.”

He declined to name any members of congress with whom he has discussed such an investigation, but said they were members of the House intelligence committee and the oversight panel he chairs. “Are we close to commissioning a study in the way I’m conceiving it? No, not yet,” he said. A House Republican aide, who requested anonymity, was unaware of Holt’s early feelers, raising questions about whether Holt’s envisioned inquiry would have Republican support. And a spokesman for Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the House intelligence committee chairman, did not return a request for comment.

Many in the intelligence world and on the right view the committee investigations led by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.) as representing an apex of progressive congressional attempts to geld the intelligence community. Empaneled in response to a New York Times article by Seymour Hersh in 1974 reporting widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens, the investigations unearthed other abuses, such as repeated CIA assassination attempts on foreign heads of state. It resulted in the passage of laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to prevent warrantless domestic surveillance and the creation of standing committees in Congress to oversee intelligence activities. Some conservatives view the investigations as an example of congressional overreach. “I think they undermined our capabilities in some respects,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told his biographer, Stephen F. Hayes.

Holt said that he is “not talking about upsetting the applecart, I’m talking about analyzing the full applecart” of intelligence activities. He rejects the idea that such a comprehensive investigation necessarily entails eroding U.S. intelligence capabilities. “Is giving your kid a test in school an inhibition on his free learning?” Hold said. “Sure, there are some people who are happy to let intelligence agencies go about their business unexamined. But I think most people when they think about it will say that you will get better intelligence if the intelligence agencies don’t operate in an unexamined fashion.”

But over the past several years, the intelligence committees and official commissions have peered into intelligence matters repeatedly. In 2002 and 2003, an unprecedented joint House-Senate intelligence committee investigation looked into intelligence work on al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks, work that the 9/11 Commission took as a point of departure. A panel created by the Bush administration examined intelligence work on weapons of mass destruction. The Senate intelligence committee, from 2004 to 2007, undertook a multi-tiered look at intelligence failures preceding the invasion of Iraq. At the moment, the Senate intelligence committee is conducting a study into the CIA’s interrogation and detention practices after 9/11, and the House intelligence committee on which Holt serves is examining recent revelations of a shuttered CIA program believed to be tied to strengthening assassinations capabilities.

Holt said that such inquiries still left a host of unexamined activities. “There’s a lot to look at, [and] not just who told what to whom, or the treatment of detainees or [renditions], or interrogation, or domestic surveillance or national security letters or on and on and on,” he said. “Church looked at everything since the OSS,” referring to the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era predecessor of the CIA. “The recommendations of the Church committee, in large part, have been eroded, ignored or violated since then. The world situation has evolved, and the technologies, methodology and organizations of the intelligence community have evolved, [and] also the look back then, in a sense, has been forgotten by some.”

Representatives from the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not return messages seeking comment.

Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, said that in some respects it was surprising that no one had proposed a Church committee-like investigation. “It’s the shoe that has not dropped yet,” Aftergood said. “The Church committee was established following a series of revelations of disturbing intelligence community activities. To a remarkable extent the series of events precipitating the Church committee has been replicated in recent months and years. The famous December 1974 Seymour Hersh front-page story in The New York Times talking about domestic surveillance [presaged] the December 2005 [James Risen and Eric Lichtblau] story in The New York Times about domestic surveillance.”

Aftergood said that a new Church committee was “overdue,” and disputed the characterization of the 1970s congressional investigations as weakening U.S. intelligence. “While to some people in the intelligence business the name of Frank Church is a dirty word, it’s also true that the structures that emerged from the Church committee benefited intelligence by introducing stability and predictability into intelligence policy,” Aftergood said. “The idea that this was a disaster or an assault on intelligence is shortsighted to the point of misunderstanding. The Church committee yielded the framework that the U.S. intelligence community needed to grow and to regain at least in some measure the confidence of the public and the rest of the government.”

Along those lines, Holt said that he’s heard representatives of the intelligence community say, in “breathtaking honesty and self-awareness,” that a thorough investigation might enable them to better do their jobs. “In a representative democracy, there is a very important role for the legislative branch to help the CIA and the intelligence community determine and understand their proper role and give them the tools and the latitude to carry out” lawful intelligence activities.

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