- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

With both presidential candidates out to show that they are foreign policy and national security experts, it’s a good time to interject some political reality into the debate: The candidates are both United States senators and - while perhaps counterintuitive - know surprisingly little of what actually goes on at senior levels in the national security/foreign policy departments and agencies in the executive branch of government.

In short, the candidates are legislators, not foreign policy and national security experts. They never have been and never will be such experts. They can at best hope to simulate expertise - and over the years some candidates have been better at this than others. But even then they are “a mile wide and an inch deep” on most of these issues. In other words, they can’t take a trip somewhere and return an “expert,” any more than most Americans can.

State Department for his current information.

I’m not just beating up on the two presidential candidate senators: All senators can get an enormous amount of factual information on foreign policy and national security just by asking for it. However, they are pretty much at the mercy of the departments they request it from as to what they will actually get. For example, a senator interested in such matters might want details about war plans - and some have persisted in these requests for years with both Democratic and Republican administrations but are told “no” - politely, but “no.”

This is just one reason, for example, Mr. Obama reportedly is advised by more than 300 so-called foreign policy/national security “experts,” many of them former Democratic political appointees to various agencies and departments.

Members of Congress are just that, and there is a general reluctance for the executive branch, no matter which party runs it, to share operational information and details with the legislative branch. So, these candidates for president will probably get their first “real” information about foreign policy and national security when one of them wins and is “briefed” on the current operations and activities that a president actually needs to know about. And, there are a lot of them: It will be like taking a drink from a fire hose, as the expression goes.

But, is the real reason for this based on the Constitution, a healthy competition between the two branches, the executive branch’s bureaucratic obsession to hoard information - or something else?

It probably has more to do with the Congress being unable to keep the information to itself - especially if it is classified information - but far more practically, to keep the information from being passed on to those who will exploit it or not safeguard it as executive branch custodians are responsible for doing. In short - and for some good reasons - Congress isn’t generally trusted by the executive department - Republican or Democrat - with much more information and detail than is necessary to accompany and justify the annual budget request.

This also explains why a few disgruntled executive branch employees (called “whistle blowers”) routinely pass sensitive information to members of Congress and their staffers “over the transom.” That is how Congress gets the really juicy information it uses to call the executive branch on the carpet with formal hearings. Or sometimes, Congress uses it as leverage (or a bludgeon) to get even more information from the executive branch on controversial issues.

A significant exception involves the intelligence committees. Born from the Watergate scandal and the general readjustment of power between the president and Congress caused by the long war in Vietnam, the two Intelligence Committees get as close to the “real deal” as possible. This is especially so given the statutory requirement that the president keep the committees “fully and currently informed” about intelligence operations and activities.

The president is also required by law (this one a result of the Iran-Contra investigation) to give the committee leaderships and leaderships of both houses - called the “Gang of Eight” - notice of “covert actions,” which are defined as nonattributive intelligence activities intended to influence political, economic or military conditions in a foreign country.

However, this often very sensitive and sometimes operational information has proven as much of a burden as an advantage to Congress. This because the information can be at odds with political statements made by nonintelligence committee members, or even by intelligence committee members who are not privy to the “Gang of Eight” briefings on covert actions.

With regard to their general level of knowledge and expertise, neither candidate is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee; however, as ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, Mr. McCain serves as an “ex officio” member.

So, let’s keep the candidates’ sparring about foreign policy and national security in perspective: Nether is an expert. They both have experts, and need them in order not to say things that are wrong, ill-advised or simply misinformed. And, ironically, the fact that they are both senators may actually have them at a disadvantage, in that their information from the executive branch is all carefully “managed” - not intentionally to keep them ignorant, but more to serve as leverage in the eternal struggle for power between the president and the Congress.

Daniel Gallington has served in senior positions at the Justice and Defense Departments and as general counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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