With Speaker Pelosi caught in the web of her own deceit over what the CIA told her about “torture,” and the Obama administration in the middle of its latest 180-degree reversal over CIA interrogators (Attorney General Holder is now considering prosecutions despite Obama’s promise of no prosecutions), Democrats have trumped up a charge that the CIA, on the orders of Vice President Dick Cheney, failed to notify Congress that it was contemplating — not implementing, but essentially brainstorming about — plans to kill or capture top al-Qaeda figures.
This is their most ludicrous gambit in a long time — and that’s saying something. Given their eight years of complaints about President Bush’s failure to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and given President Clinton’s indignant insistence (against the weight of the evidence) that he absolutely wanted the CIA to kill bin Laden, one is moved to ask: What did Democrats think the CIA was doing for the last eight years?
And if Democrats did not believe the CIA was considering plans to kill or capture bin Laden, why weren’t they screaming from the rafters about such a lapse?
Of course the CIA has been trying to figure out how to take out top al-Qaeda leaders. One assumes — one hopes — they are also brainstorming about wiping out the Taliban, overthrowing the Iranian regime, undermining Kim Jong Il’s nuclear program, disrupting Syrian support of Hezbollah, and tackling all manner of threats to the United States. But there is no law that requires, or could practically require, the CIA to brief Congress every time some agency component considers the feasibility of some security initiative.
Gen. George Washington himself observed that “upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises . . . and for want of it, they are generally defeated.” Washington thought it obvious that secrecy was the heart of good intelligence. That is a big part of why intelligence activities are executive in nature, a core part of what the Supreme Court long ago recognized as the “delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations.” Secrecy cannot be preserved in a system of national security by political committee, much less a system in which a sprawling, 17-agency intelligence community is forced to share all of its secrets, in real time, with 535 members of Congress.
Intelligence activities are not reliant on congressional authorization or supervision. Like all executive power under the Constitution, the president is checked in this area by Congress’s enumerated powers, particularly the power of the purse. As is its wont, Congress tries to leverage this authority to usurp presidential prerogatives — to make itself a partner in the actual running of intelligence activities, albeit a partner with no accountability (see Nancy Pelosi, supra).
Alexander Hamilton warned in Federalist No. 73 that this “propensity of the legislative department to intrude upon the rights, and to absorb the powers, of the other departments” would be a constant concern. That’s why presidents are expected to defend their turf and are armed with the capacity to do so. But it is also true that our country is best defended when the political branches work cooperatively: Presidents who explain themselves to Congress are less apt to make policy errors, and Congress is more inclined to offer support when administrations consult with it ahead of time.
So the president and Congress are locked in a tense, dynamic dance. Since no one wants needlessly to provoke a constitutional crisis, presidents have occasionally (and foolishly) agreed as a matter of comity to legislation that seemingly permits Congress to intrude on intelligence and military operations. Presidents conduct those operations in a practical manner that is respectful — but not subservient. The 1947 National Security Act is a good example. It requires that Congress be kept “fully and currently informed” of intelligence matters, including any “significant anticipated intelligence activity.” But it does not define what “fully and currently informed” means, nor at what point a contemplated plan of action becomes significant enough that the obligation to inform congressional leaders is triggered.
When everyone is being an adult and acting in good faith, this doesn’t present a problem. No one expects the CIA to alert congressional leadership every time some agent conjures up a potential operation or to waste Congress’s time with briefings to explain the agency’s current thinking on matters (like how to neutralize al-Qaeda) that everyone knows the agency is working on. After all, if Congress wants to inquire about such things, it can ask. At the same time, if the CIA is about to embark on an effort that could have significant policy or security consequences, it is in the interest of the president and the country that bipartisan congressional leadership be given a heads-up.
Problems arise, though, if congressional leadership goes juvenile, as has happened in recent times. Sen. Patrick Leahy, for example, had to be removed from the Senate Intelligence Committee several years ago for leaking classified information. And when Democrats decided to politicize our national security through demagoguery about “torture” and “domestic spying,” their leaders took to misrepresenting the fact that they were informed about — and were supportive of — these policies from the beginning. Such shenanigans make the notification process not only pointless but counterproductive.
That is the setting of the latest controversy. Needing some back-up for Pelosi’s smear that the CIA regularly lies to Congress, Democrats came up with a vaguely worded whopper about how the agency withheld from Congress that it was developing a “secret plan” to conduct “intelligence activities.” Now, as the “I” in CIA stands for “Intelligence,” and as most of the agency’s activities are secret, one might not think there was anything very startling about all this — especially given that the “secret plan” to conduct “intelligence activities” was never “implemented.” But Democrats reached into their bag of tricks for that favorite of all talismans — the name “Cheney” — and their pied-piper media played right along. It was somehow a story because, whatever the “secret plan” may have been, it was Darth Vader who’d hidden it from Congress.
But it turns out the secret plan wasn’t so secret: The agency was thinking about how to carry out a post-9/11 Bush administration finding about the need to kill or capture al-Qaeda leaders. Congress knew all about the finding, but it wasn’t told about various possibilities, including targeted assassinations, that were bandied about to accomplish the goal. These were conversations — the ideas were not acted on.
Most Americans assume that the CIA has been trying to get bin Laden and his top lieutenants. Moreover, Democrats have a sorry recent history of turning national security into a war crime — a pattern seen again in this weekend’s coverage, which conjured absurd images of Cheney covering up illegal assassinations even though (a) the ban on assassinations relates to heads of state, not jihadist networks, and (b) during the 2008 campaign, the press considered it a positive demonstration of Barack Obama’s toughness that he said he would not shrink from striking vigorously against terrorists who’d attacked Americans. It should thus come as no surprise that the CIA — at the direction not only of the former vice president but also of George Tenet, the Democrat holdover who was Bush’s first CIA director — decided there was no need to brief congressional leadership on notions that evidently never became concrete plans.
So, to score some political points, Democrats have put themselves in the position of opposing CIA efforts to defeat our enemies. This misbegotten strategy can only remind the public of a few unwelcome facts:
First, when Democrats were in charge in the 1990s, at the time when bin Laden declared war on the United States and then bombed our embassies and the U.S.S. Cole, the Democrats’ strategy to protect the country was to file indictments — with no meaningful effort to capture bin Laden or his top aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri, much less kill them.
Second, when opportunities to kill bin Laden arose, the CIA’s hands were tied because President Clinton so muddled the rules of engagement that our special-ops agents could not be sure whether Democrats would indict them for such operations.
Third, after 9/11, even as President Bush’s warfare strategy decimated al-Qaeda’s top hierarchy, Democrats complained that the Bush administration had failed to kill or capture bin Laden. Now that the political winds have shifted, they have returned to their default position of complaining that government agents were trying to kill or capture bin Laden.
Fourth, this bizarre complaint comes in the form of grousing about a failure to notify Congress, voiced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among others. But consider that back in February, Senator Feinstein publicly revealed that Pakistan’s government was allowing the United States to use Pakistani territory as a base for Predator drones being used for controversial targeted assassinations. Unlike Leahy’s aforementioned malfeasance, Feinstein’s unfortunate revelation was doubtlessly inadvertent. But it underscores the danger of informing Congress about intelligence activities.
The last point is a critical one, showing starkly the difference between Democrats and Republicans on national security. President Obama is clearly conducting a war in Pakistan, a country with which we are formally at peace. The legitimate existence of wartime conditions is crucial: If we are not at war, there is no basis in international law for killing Pakistanis (or non-Pakistanis) in Pakistan. But the Right is not accusing the president of conducting an illegal war, of failing to seek congressional authorization, or of committing war crimes. Nor did Republicans seek to exploit Feinstein’s gaffe — while there might have been political sport in it, doing so would have made it more difficult for Pakistan to cooperate with the Obama administration in an effort that advances American security interests.
That is, while Democrats politicize “torture,” “domestic spying,” the Patriot Act, and now the CIA’s efforts to defeat al-Qaeda, Republicans are generally supporting Obama’s Pakistan policy for the greater good of protecting our national security.
Eventually, people do figure out who the grown-ups are.