- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009


When CIA officers went to work at the Langley headquarters last Tuesday, the first item in the daily press summary prepared by their public affairs office took their breath away.

“Democrats: CIA Out to Get Us” was the way Politico headlined a piece on recent Capitol Hill events. For an agency that had been criticized from the right for a supposed organized campaign to undermine President Bush in the 2004 election and criticized again in 2007 for a national intelligence estimate that was purportedly written and timed to undercut the administration’s Iran policy, the accusation must have seemed like comic relief.

Comic relief or not, any smiles were gone by midday Thursday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explicitly accused the agency of lying - “The CIA comes to the Congress, withholds information about the timing and theuse of this subject” - and of lying frequently - “They mislead us all the time.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hastened to add, “The CIA is not an agency that is above not telling the truth.” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a senior member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chimed in: “You have to play 20 questions with them. They are not forthcoming with information.”

In my first hand-off with the new CIA Director, Leon E. Panetta, I told him that one area I felt needed a lot of improvement was the relationship between the agency and Congress. I pointed out that we had tried hard. In practically every category of dialogue with the Hill - briefings, hearings, written notifications - the statistics for CIA engagement with the 110th Congress dwarfed those for any of its predecessors. But more information did not routinely lead to any calming of the atmosphere. It was just wild.

At the height of the Iraq surge debate, for example, we briefed a wide swath of congressional members. Because of the superheated atmosphere, we prepared our analysts (many of whom were now very junior because of our recent hiring) with a short sentence to help them cut off overly contentious or overtly partisan sessions: “I’m sorry, but I will be unable to continue our dialogue if you continue to question my integrity or that of my Agency.”

Even senior analysts were taken aback by how caustic the exchange could become. At one memorable offsite briefing that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell had arranged for the House Intelligence Committee and all the intelligence community leadership, several intelligence seniors went off the agenda and asked for the committee’s help in responding to a story that had appeared that morning in a major daily. The story was long and difficult to track but it followed the usual pattern of such stories by going to what we would call the “darkest corner of the room” with threatening overtones of large databases, data mining and serious civil liberties infringements.

“It’s hard for us to defend ourselves in these circumstances,” we said, “but you have access to all of our activities. We’re an open book to you. You know what we’re doing. You’re in a position to defuse this.”

The membersrefused; The talk quickly went beyond any healthy constitutional skepticism inherent in a discussion between Article I and Article II entities. It was a stark foreshadowing of last week’s “we don’t believe you.”

This has implications that go well beyond hurt feelings. Whatever its shortcomings or limitations, the regime of congressional oversight practiced in the United States is necessarily the most expansive in the world. It is not uncommon for American congressional delegations from our oversight committees to have difficulty visiting facilities overseas that we share with our partners - the kinds of facilities they routinely visit when such facilities are wholly American - because our partners’ parliamentarians are never allowed such visits.

So be it. Our oversight regime is the right fit for our Constitution, our system of separation of powers and our political culture. We all recognize that the founders built inherent tension into this system, and since intelligence agencies often work on the outer edges of executive prerogative, flash points are inevitable.

But when this system becomes hopelessly adversarial, there are real costs. Without some elemental baseline of trust and confidence, no Congress, no executive, no intelligence agency can make it work.

Mr. Panetta admirably held the line last week when he attested that the CIA and its officers are truthful. Now his challenge is to do better than his immediate predecessors in convincing his former colleagues on the Hill that this is so. Otherwise the agency and its officers will surely suffer. But it is the nation that will be the biggest loser.

Michael V. Hayden is a retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

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