I've spent a fascinating evening diving into some documents relating to domestic spying, Presidential powers, and Congressional oversight. Initially I thought I'd make a few pithy points, but the more I read the more I realized that the latest domestic spying debate is part of a story that spans back to Roosevelt, Truman, and something called the Church Committee. Have you heard of it? I hadn't.
Now that you're here - If you haven't done so, at least read the findings of the Church Commission below. They'll sound eerily familiar to you. Though, Good luck on getting our current Congressional leadership to let a report like this come through.
See if Operation CHAOS reminds you of anything...
CIA agents infiltrated U.S. protest groups and kept files on 7,200 U.S. citizens. Ultimately, they found no evidence of Soviet influence, but the operation was a potential time bomb -- the CIA's charter directly prohibited it from domestic operations.
On December 22, 1974, The New York Times broke the story of "Chaos." The operation had already been shut down, but the report sparked a furor in Washington and led to investigations by both a presidential commission and a congressional committee.
In fact, because of the growing assessment that the Executive Branch was unchecked, the Church Committee issued 14 reports during 1975 and 1976. Book II is the one I took a look at tonight. The Major Findings made my jaw drop.
It's a little long, but I think you'll find it extremely interesting in light of our conversations today (I bolded some of the best passages):
A. VIOLATING AND IGNORING THE LAW
The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the "national security" the law did not apply.
While intelligence officers on occasion failed to disclose to their superiors programs which were illegal or of questionable legality, the Committee finds that the most serious breaches of duty were those of senior officials, who were responsible for controlling intelligence activities and generally failed to assure compliance with the law.
(a) In its attempt to implement instructions to protect the security of the United States, the intelligence community engaged in some activities which violated statutory law and the constitutional rights of American citizens.
(b) Legal issues were often overlooked by many of the intelligence officers who directed these operations. Some held a pragmatic view of intelligence activities that did not regularly attach sufficient significance to questions of legality. The question raised was usually not whether a particular program was legal or ethical, but whether it worked.
(c) On some occasions when agency officials did assume, or were told, that a program was illegal, they still permitted it to continue. They justified their conduct in some cases on the ground that the failure of "the enemy" to play by the rules granted them the right to do likewise, and in other cases on the ground that the "national security" permitted programs that would otherwise be illegal.
(d) Internal recognition of the illegality or the questionable legality of many of these activities frequently led to a tightening of security rather than to their termination. Partly to avoid exposure and a public "flap," knowledge of these programs was tightly held within the agencies, special filing procedures were used, and "cover stories" were devised.
(e) On occasion, intelligence agencies failed to disclose candidly their programs and practices to their own General Counsels, and to Attorneys General, Presidents, and Congress.
(f) The internal inspection mechanisms of the CIA and the FBI did not keep -- and, in the case of the FBI, were not designed to keep -- the activities of those agencies within legal bounds. Their primary concern was efficiency, not legality or propriety.
(g) When senior administration officials with a duty to control domestic intelligence activities knew, or had a basis for suspecting, that questionable activities had occurred, they often responded with silence or approval. In certain cases, they were presented with a partial description of a program but did not ask for details, thereby abdicating their responsibility. In other cases, they were fully aware of the nature of the practice and implicitly or explicitly approved it.
Elaboration of findings
The elaboration which follows details the general finding of the Committee that inattention to -- and disregard of -- legal issues was an all too common occurrence in the intelligence community.
While this section focuses on the actions and attitudes of intelligence officials and certain high policy officials, the Committee recognizes that a pattern of lawless activity does not result from the deeds of a single stratum of the government or of a few individuals alone. The implementation and continuation of illegal and questionable programs would not have been possible without the cooperation or tacit approval of people at all levels within and above the intelligence community, through many successive administrations.
The agents in the field, for their part, rarely questioned the orders they received. Their often uncertain knowledge of the law, coupled with the natural desire to please one's superiors and with simple bureaucratic momentum, clearly contributed to their willingness to participate in illegal and questionable programs. The absence of any prosecutions for law violations by intelligence agents inevitably affected their attitudes as well. Under pressure from above to accomplish their assigned tasks, and without the realistic threat of prosecution to remind them of their legal obligations, it is understandable that these agents frequently acted without concern for issues of law and at times assumed that normal legal restraints and prohibitions did not apply to their activities.
Significantly, those officials at the highest levels of government, who had a duty to control the activities of the intelligence community, sometimes set in motion the very forces that permitted lawlessness to occur -- even if every act committed by intelligence agencies was not known to them. By demanding results without carefully limiting the means by which the results were achieved; by over-emphasizing the threats to national security without ensuring sensitivity to the rights of American citizens; and by propounding concepts such as the right of the "sovereign" to break the law, ultimate responsibility for the consequent climate of permissiveness should be placed at their door.
There was more, so much more. I'd recommend this link http://www.icdc.com/... as a good way to read up a little more on the history of what is very much a struggle between branches of government, and on the meaning of the Constitution.
This explains a lot. This report was issued during the Ford Administration. Who was President Ford's Chief of Staff during this period? Dick Cheney. I'd say it is a safe bet that he acquired much of his desire to reassert Presidential authority from this period.
In fact, I'd say his recent quotes confirm it:
"I believe in a strong, robust executive authority and I think that the world we live in demands it. And to some extent, that we have an obligation as the administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good of shape as we found them," he said...
The vice president also told reporters that in his view, presidential authority has been eroded since the 1970s through laws such as the War Powers Act and anti-impoundment laws.
"Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the '70s served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area," Cheney said. But he also said the administration has been able to restore some of "the legitimate authority of the presidency."
Another interesting tidbit. Who was the Director of the CIA from 1976 to 1977 who had to deal with the fallout from this Committee's findings? That would be the elder George Bush. Not sure what that means, but it does add an interesting context to the motivating factors for the prime actors here.
Fascinating stuff. Maybe we'll see a Joint Committee of Congress once again reign-in another overreaching Administration.
Somehow I doubt that.
Maybe, just maybe we'll see some type of public discussion about privacy and how much power the government should have to snoop in our lives prior to the 2006 elections.
After all, if as unlikely a source as a top official in the NSA had this to say, surely there is some hope - right?
"What I really need you to do," Hayden told lawmakers, "is to talk to your constituents and find out where the American people want that line between security and liberty to be. In the context of NSA's mission, where do we draw the line between the government's need for counterterrorism information about people in the United States and the privacy interests of people located in the United States?"
Where do we draw the line? Cheney and the GOP have drawn theirs.
Where is ours?