Beyond the outrage–feigned or otherwise–and sharpening of knives lies an intriguing story about the balance of power among branches of government:
The Central Intelligence Agency withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the agency’s director, Leon E. Panetta, has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said Saturday.
The report that Mr. Cheney was behind the decision to conceal the still-unidentified program from Congress deepened the mystery surrounding it, suggesting that the Bush administration had put a high priority on the program and its secrecy.
Mr. Panetta, who ended the program when he first learned of its existence from subordinates on June 23, briefed the two intelligence committees about it in separate closed sessions the next day.
The Washington Post distills the matter to its core–the question of whether such concealment is illegal or merely unseemly:
Congress and the CIA have jousted for decades over the interpretation of the 1947 law creating the agency, which included a provision mandating that the committees be kept “fully and currently informed” of intelligence issues. Even for covert actions, lawmakers on the committees generally must be notified.
But the law also says such briefings should be done “to the extent consistent with due regard for the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified information relating to sensitive intelligence sources and methods or other exceptionally sensitive matters.”
This distinction will almost certainly get lost in the political posturing on the Sunday shows and the Monday morning editorials. The right will cry politics, and the left will echo with secrecy run amok. We can count on the debate devolving into petty talking points about who can be trusted to protect the country and who can be trusted to lead it. It will be a pity if the discussion comprises no more than that.
Aside from the flag-waving and the hand-wringing, there is an opportunity to resolve once and for all a matter that has plagued the intelligence oversight process for over six decades. There’s the “blame game”, and then there’s real, substantive institutional change. It would be a shame if the latter fell victim to the former.
It’s an open secret that organizational inefficiencies stay in place because they so frequently serve political purposes. Occasionally–as with 9/11 or the space shuttle disasters–a crisis opens a narrow window of opportunity to correct the inefficiency. That window is opening now.