Tuesday, October 29, 2013

watchdog bites

Until now, the most vigorous defenders of the intelligence community have been the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees. The latest leaks about interception of friendly  foreign leaders' communications, however, have turned one of them them into a critic. Senator Diane Feinstein of California is promising a thorough review of the NSA.

It sounds as if her committee was not made fully aware of the "head of state collection" program -- just as  White House officials are saying, anonymously of course, that President Obama didn't know either until this summer. I'm not surprised that the President wasn't specifically told about the intercepts; senior leaders need assessed intelligence, not sources and methods details. But it's obvious now that the blowback from disclosures is damaging to U.S. interests that the President should have been told and asked for permission to continue what apparently started in 2002.

As President Eisenhower learned when he first tried to deny knowing about the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, plausible deniability doesn't really help a president or the country when word of a secret activity gets out. Better to have a check and balance system of presidential decision and congressional notification.

That was my answer in 1974 when I helped write the Hughes-Ryan amendment that set up that system for CIA covert actions, and it's still a good recommendation for potentially embarrassing collection programs, as well as for lethal drone and offensive cyber operations.

Update: Foreign Policy's The Cable has an even fuller description of the significance of the Feinstein statement.

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