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It was a get-together only a Washington policy addict could love. On a cold winter night, I took a Metrobus to a weekday evening presentation at the National Press Club, two blocks from the White House.  The event was organized by a former CIA director. It featured four former government officials and a national security lawyer. Mostly centrist in politics, they were  uniformly earnest in style as they opined on the most unsexy of subjects: “Governing Intelligence in an Imperfect World.”

In any other city, such an event might have drawn a handful of senior citizens, a couple of Code Pink activists, a poli sci professor or two, and the odd Reddit conspiracy theorist. I filed into the Press Club’s 13th floor  ballroom to find 175 well-dressed attendees settling into their chairs under the gimlet eyes of two CSPAN cameras,

Hayden Center panel
Spywatchers: Former CIA director Mike Morell; former Obama adviser Lisa Monaco; former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, former CIA spokesman George Little, and attorney Mark Zaid.

President Sanders’ Policy Options

Like most everyone in attendance, I came to the event, sponsored by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security, because I cared about the issue. After three decades reporting on the CIA, I think U.S.  intelligence agencies are badly in need of democratic control.

Some might have boycotted the event because of Hayden’s record. As director of the National Security Agency under President Clinton and as CIA director under President George Bush, Hayden played a leading role in U.S. policies of torture, rendition, and mass surveillance. Some say Hayden is “an evil man.”  I did not come to judge the man but to hear what the panel had to say.

President Bernie Sanders (or President Elizabeth Warren) will not have the option of boycotting rooms inhabited by people who share the views of General Hayden. On January 21, 2021, the next president will assume command of the CIA. One of the first orders of his or her business will be to repair and strengthen the government’s intelligence oversight system.

I came in search of answers to the question: How’s that going to work?

President Sanders’ handling of the CIA will mostly likely be implemented by some of the very people on that stage and in that room—Capitol Hill staffers, government lawyers, civilian Pentagon employees, and think tank specialists.

How does President Warren get control a secret intelligence agency? The answer, on display that night, was: not easily. The next Democrat to occupy the White House will inherit a huge CIA challenge. The panel discussion illuminated the nature of the problem.

With Gen. Hayden recuperating from a stroke, the moderator of the evening was former acting CIA director Mike Morrell. Like Hayden, Morell has emerged as a critic of President Trump. But this was not a partisan event. Amazingly (and pleasantly) for a wonk’s night out in Washington, Trump was barely mentioned.

 “Secrecy make it hard to convince the public that the CIA is acting lawfully, responsibly, and efficiently,” Morell noted. So the government has created a variety of bureaucratic structures within the executive branch to oversee the agency’s operations.

Morell ticked them of,  and they sounded impressive: An NSA lawyer’s group and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, not to mention independent bodies like the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and the Information Security Oversight Office.

“Why so much oversight?” he asked John Rizzo, former CIA counsel and advocate of “enhance interrogation techniques.”

The Nature of the Problem

Rizzo explained that he joined the CIA in 1976, at a time when the agency was under investigation from by the Church Committee, which discovered the agency’s role in assassinations,  mind-control experiments, and the surveillance of Americans.

“There was bipartisan revulsion at the CIA activities over the previous two decades and no one knew about it,” Rizzo said.

One result was the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Another was an explosion of lawyers at the CIA. Rizzo said he was the 18th lawyer hired at the agency in 1976. By the time he retired 30 years later, there were 130.

But Rizzo himself embodies the failure of Executive Branch oversight. It tends to overlook, rather than supervise. After 9/11, Rizzo promoted and rationalized the torture regime that disgraced the agency and harmed the reputation of the U.S. government worldwide. Oversight within the CIA did not prevent the implementation of an illegal policy. Quite the contrary.

Lisa Monaco former national security adviser to President Obama, made a key distinction. Oversight has two functions, she noted, compliance and governance. One asks, “Is this policy legal? The other asks, “Does this policy make sense?”

Rizzo and others dressed up the torture policy in legalese that convinced agency operatives (like Gina Haspel) that that they could waterboard suspected terrorists. Their sleight of hand made torture “legal” but it didn’t mean that torture made sense as a government policy or that it would pass congressional muster.

When it comes to intelligence operations, Monaco said, “the most effective oversight involves all three branches of government and therefore has the legitimacy that comes with them.”

This elementary point struck me as key for President Beto O’Rourke to remember. He (or President Kirsten Gillibrand) cannot restrain the CIA via executive order.  Getting the agency under control will require enlisting the Congress and the courts.

Snowden’s Impact

The panelists danced around the specter of Edward Snowden. No one on the panel approved of him, but no one denounced him either. Five years after his exposure of NSA operations, Snowden was not a hot button issue. The programs he disclosed remain in effect, albeit with more transparency.

Another takeaway from the evening: Pardoning Snowden would be politically realistic for President Kamala Harris (or President Joe Biden).

George Little, a former CIA spokesman, said the NSA suffered from the Snowden disclosures because the agency “had no reputational capital in the bank.” The agency’s perennial “no comment” posture meant the public had no reason to believe its claims that mass surveillance was justified and necessary.  Little’s point: If the intelligence community wants public trust, it needs to be more transparent. 

While avoiding mention of Snowden, all the panelists paid lip service to the need for whistleblowers to check abuses of power, although attorney Mark Zaid noted drily that “Everyone likes a whistleblower until one actually shows up at their door.” (Full disclosure: Zaid is a friend and supporter of The Deep State blog).

The panel discussion focused on oversight within the Executive Branch and, by design, did not address the more problematic issue of congressional oversight. (The Hayden Center will hold a separate event on that issue next year.) But all of the panelists decried the politicization of the House Intelligence Committee by Republicans defending President Trump.

“We need to get back to a time when the Congress was more effective,” Morell noted.  In passing, Morell punctured one myth propagated by the CIA and the Washington press corps over the years: that Congress can not be trusted with sensitive intelligence matters.

“I brief Congress many, many times on extraordinarily sensitive secrets and nothing ever leaked,” Morell said. “The fact is most of the leaks come from the Executive Branch.”

Last takeaway of the evening. After Trump is gone, President Warren (or President Sanders or President O’Rourke or President Gillibrand or President Harris or President Biden) will find wide support in the intelligence community for strengthening congressional oversight of intelligence operations. It’s not a panacea. It’s a start. 

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