Congress Must Reform Itself to Change the CIA’s Culture of Secrecy

Last week we, together with our partner the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and others, called on President Obama to request CIA Director John Brennan's resignation. This request was made in light of the disturbing confirmation that CIA employees improperly accessed records of investigators from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the CIA's lack of candor about the situation.

Holding only Mr. Brennan responsible for intolerable actions that happened on his watch is only one step towards creating accountability at the CIA, however. As the coalition letter calling for Brennan's resignation points out, the CIA's most recent actions are not an isolated incident. The letter points to a series of efforts by the CIA to obstruct the Senate Intelligence Committee's efforts to investigate the use of torture by the United States after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The CIA's abuse of secrecy to avoid accountability is not limited to torture either: there are outstanding questions about the CIA's drone strike program and the CIA refuses to release even basic unclassified spending information.

Actually penetrating the culture of secrecy at the CIA will require that Congress step up to the plate to perform stronger oversight and hold CIA and the entire intelligence community accountable for their roles in a democratic society. The current state of Congressional oversight of the intelligence community, including the CIA, is weak on accountability, to say the least. The creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in the wake of revelations about domestic spying in the Watergate era was intended to provide better oversight of the intelligence community to prevent such abuses in the future. According both to current Committee members and Congressional observers, however, several factors prevent the structure from being effective.

It is ironic (we hope) that Congress is responsible in many ways for policies that make it difficult for it to conduct intelligence oversight. For example, if a Member of Congress wants to reveal classified information that the Executive Branch insists be kept secret, s/he must navigate a complicated patchwork of rules. These policies — set in place by the legislative branch — mean that any threat to go public is essentially meaningless, as a 2006 study from the Center for American Progress pointed out. Indeed, people watching the debate over the NSA's surveillance programs prior to the Snowden revelations saw some of these complications play out as Senator Wyden attempted to ask questions about the extent of collection of American citizen's information — without revealing any classified information.

Worse, the Rules adopted the House and Senate Committee at the beginning of the 113th Congress also essentially bar Committee Members from disclosing anything discussed by the Committee, even if the material is not classified. And, troublingly, both House and Senate Committee Members have acceded to demands from intelligence agencies that they refrain from even taking notes on the substance of briefings.

The above are just a few examples of the way in which Congress has hamstrung its ability to conduct accountability oversight of the intelligence community. Congress can, and must, address its own policies and practices as one step toward ensuring our country’s intelligence and surveillance activities accord with the values of our open and democratic society.

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