In a rare gesture, House intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes sent a letter this week to all CIA employees suggesting that Congress shared some blame for the CIA interrogation controversy and should play a more robust role in the intelligence policymaking process.
The letter, which was sent Wednesday and made available to The Washington Times on Thursday, appeared to undercut remarks by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that there was little Congress could do about harsh interrogations, including waterboarding. The Times reported last month that members of Congress, including Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, had been briefed on numerous occasions about the interrogation program for high-value detainees.
“One important lesson to me from the CIA’s interrogation operations involves congressional oversight,” wrote Mr. Reyes, Texas Democrat. “I’m going to examine closely ways in which we can change the law to make our own oversight of CIA more meaningful; I want to move from mere notification to real discussion. Good oversight can lead to a partnership, and that’s what I am looking to bring about.”
The letter both seeks to excuse Democrats who were briefed after Sept. 11, 2001, about interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and at the same time suggests that members of Congress cleared to receive highly classified material have a responsibility in the future to let their criticisms be known.
• Click here to read Reyes’ letter to the CIA on the interrogations controversy (downloads 3-page pdf)
The budgeting process for the intelligence community gives members of the oversight committees authority to withhold funding for activities without disclosing classified programs. Nonetheless, last week, Mrs. Pelosi said of the briefings she received between 2002 and 2006, “They don’t come in to consult. They come in to notify.”
In the letter, Mr. Reyes expressed support for rank-and-file CIA employees.
“In recent days, as the public debate regarding the CIA’s interrogation practices has raged, you have been very much in my thoughts,” he said. “I write to let you know, without sound-bites or political calculus, my view on this debate and to remind you of my deep gratitude for the work you do each day.”
A former chairman of the House intelligence panel and its current ranking member, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, called the Reyes letter “unprecedented.”
“I’ve got to believe the feedback they are getting from the community prompted this,” Mr. Hoekstra told The Times. “Here members of Congress knew all about these programs, and here fellow CIA employees are getting thrown under the bus. From my standpoint, I think it is unprecedented for the CIA to receive a letter like this from a chairman.”
Mr. Reyes has in the past sent out holiday greetings to the CIA work force.
CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf, when asked whether the letter had been sent to members of the agency work force, said, “the chairman addressed his letter to the men and women of the CIA, and it will be made known to them.”
Mike Delaney, staff director for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Mr. Reyes had not received complaints from the CIA about President Obama’s decision last month to release Justice Department memos authorizing so-called enhanced interrogation and describing methods that Mr. Obama has banned.
“No, we’ve not received complaints from CIA work force,” Mr. Delaney said. “CIA employees, in the chairman’s experience, typically dont complain. The chairman, in light of the public discussion, wanted to remind CIA employees of his gratitude for their work.”
Mr. Hoekstra, who has taken to the media to blast Mr. Obama for releasing the Justice Department memos, said members of the agency have complained to him.
Mr. Obama has urged the nation to look forward with regard to the interrogation practices. But last month he also contradicted his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, leaving open the possibility that political appointees and government lawyers under the previous administration may be prosecuted by the Justice Department for approving techniques that violate anti-torture statutes.
Mr. Reyes wrote, “I wholeheartedly support the President’s decision that no CIA officer or contractor will be prosecuted for authorized actions they took in the context of interrogations. I may disagree with some of what the Agency was asked to do, but I understand that my disagreement lies with the policies, not with the officers executing those policies far from Washington.”