Sunday, May 3, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Intelligence Committee

Welcome to the sixth installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag or use the link on my blogroll. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week, I will examine the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This is an example of a select committee that has become a permanent fixture in the House. Select committees are usually investigative in nature, but this one also handles intelligence bills like the annual Intelligence Authorization Act.

Note: Last week, I mentioned covering the Senate Judiciary Committee. I'll get to Senate committees after the fallout has settled from the Specter party switch.

First, here are the members of the House Intelligence Committee.

Silvestre "Silver" Reyes of Texas is the chair of the committee and Peter Hoekstra of Michigan is the ranking member.

Democrats: Silvestre Reyes, Chairman, Texas; Alcee L. Hastings, Florida; Anna G. Eshoo, California; Rush D. Holt, New Jersey; C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Maryland; John Tierney, Massachusetts; Mike Thompson, California; Jan Schakowsky, Illinois; Jim Langevin, Rhode Island; Patrick Murphy, Pennsylvania; Adam Schiff, California; Adam Smith, Washington; Dan Boren, Oklahoma

Republicans: Peter Hoekstra, Ranking Member, Michigan; Elton Gallegly, California; Mac Thornberry, Texas; Mike Rogers, Michigan; Sue Myrick, North Carolina; Roy Blunt, Missouri; Jeff Miller, Florida; John Kline, Minnesota; K. Michael Conaway, Texas

Note: Yes, this Jan Schakowsky who stopped by Daily Kos in August to discuss the 2009 Intelligence Authorization Act.

Not surprisingly, there is not much available at the committee's website. I had to run a search for "Jurisdiction" just to come up with this on the FAQ page:

The Committee’s Jurisdiction is over the 1) the Intelligence community and the Director of Central Intelligence 2) Intelligence and intelligence-related activities of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and other agencies of the Department of Defense, and the Departments of State, Justice, and Treasury. 3) The organization, or reorganization, of any department or agency to the extent that it relates to a function or activity involving intelligence or intelligence-related activities. 4) Direct and indirect authorizations for the CIA and director of Central Intelligence, the DIA, and NSA, and all other agencies and subdivisions of DOD, the Department of State, and the FBI, including all activities of the intelligence division.

What this does not say is that a central focus of the committee's work is the annual Intelligence Authorization Act, first passed in 1947. This act both sets spending priorities and addresses any changes in U.S. intelligence gathering policies. The committee issues a report with its markups each year. They are available here. Committee reports are explanations of bills that will be considered by the full chamber.

In summary, the committee has jurisdiction over all of the country's intelligence gathering activities. Obviously, the committee members deal with very sensitive information that could be detrimental if it were to become public. The FAQ is very concerned with the definition of "closed" vs. "open" meeting. The rules of the committee (PDF link) explicitly state that current and former members are forbidden from discussing any information discussed in a closed meeting or any "classified" information they receive. The committee won't even release the names of witnesses called to testify in closed meetings.

If you still don't believe it, here is a link to the committee's recent open hearings. The last one listed was April 1 regarding "Management Issues in the Intelligence Community." There was another one on Feb. 23, but you had to look under the press releases for a mention of it. PDF link here. Before that, there were hearings on Sept. 17 and 18. Including those two, there are six hearings listed for 2008.

Thoughts on closed government

A few years ago, I quit the newspaper business to go back to school. While I was a journalist in Pennsylvania, I fought the closed government battles. There are really two facets of the fight. One is access to government records and the other is access to public meetings. Access to the government decision-making process is at stake in both situations. Without that access, citizens cannot influence the actions of their government. That influence, in turn, is at the heart of democratic theory.

Governments can take two general approaches to open records and open meetings. One approach assumes that records and meetings are open unless there is a compelling reason to close them. The other approach assumes that meetings and records are closed unless there is a reason to open them. Until recently, Pennsylvania took the latter approach to records. Meetings, conversely, have long been assumed to be open, but state and local governments are still notorious for going into "executive session" (closed door). There are several situations (legal discussions, personnel matters, real estate transactions) where the law says the meeting "can" be closed. Government boards often close the doors, even if there is no particular reason for closing the meeting. They just do it because they can.

The law makes sense. Local governments don't want legal strategies or price negotiations for land hitting the front page. Internal personnel disputes at city hall have no more business being news than the same disputes at the bank. The problem, of course, is that without independent review, information that should be public could be hidden in concealed records or discussed in closed door session.

To put this in the committee context, the committee members could be discussing anything in these meetings. Are they discussing security problems at the Pentagon that won't be fixed for two months? Could it be that they are discussing domestic spying programs? Maybe they are eating pie and reading blog posts about Georgia politicians and their mules.

The point is that there are no whistleblower opportunities. I could not track down specific penalties for members who do disclose information from closed door sessions. Members of Congress are generally allowed to disclose anything they want on the floor of the House or Senate. However, the committee has the option of "disciplining" members, presumably including dismissal from the committee.

Additionally, the committee is not likely to get members who are inclined toward releasing information that might even come close to national security issues. Go back and look at those members and try to remember the last time you saw any of them on the national news.

For an intriguing example of government secrecy, see the case of the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, a former RAND Corp. employee was charged with (later acquitted of) treason for releasing the documents. (The case revolved around the fact that most of the documents had been improperly classified "Top Secret.") However, Senator Mike Gravel convened a subcommittee he chaired and read the documents into the Congressional Record. In doing so, he made the documents public record, allowing newspapers to print the material. Ellsberg released the document before Gravel's meeting and it would be two years before Ellsberg would be acquitted.

One possible solution, though it would probably never be implemented, would be to have an independent judge sit in on the meetings and rule whether the substance of the meeting warranted a closed session.

Other activities of the committee

The following topics are culled directly from the latest report on the FY 2009 Intelligence Authorization Act. It is available here in PDF form. The report was released in May, 2008.

Torture investigation: as early as May, 2008 the committee was demanding information about "interrogation techniques. See pages 11-12 for the report the committee wanted by November.

The House Judiciary Committee has been making all of the noise about investigating torture, but it seems like the Intelligence Committee will have a role to play too. This is another committee to pressure for investigations.

Domestic spying: The committee remains concerned about the FBI's use of National Security Letters (NSLs) to gather information without probable cause or a warrant. From page 41:

The Committee has been, and remains, extremely concerned by the reports from the Department of Justice Inspector General(DOJ/IG), which found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) abused its statutory authority with respect to National Security Letters (NSLs) from 2003 through 2006.

The report includes some language about reforms to the FBI's use of NSLs and indicates that the committee intends to continue to monitor this situation.

Bush's handling of Syria: Did George W. Bush violate the Intelligence Authorization Act? From page 36:

In April 2008, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) briefed the Committee on the construction of a covert nuclear facility in Syria and its subsequent destruction in September 2007.

Over the course of the preceding eight months, the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member had requested that the President brief the full membership of the Committee about these developments, which significantly impact U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Korea.

Just hours before a highly-orchestrated public roll-out of the previously classified intelligence, the President finally sent briefers to the Committee. The delay was inexcusable and violated the National Security Act of 1947, which requires that the executive branch keep Congress ‘‘fully and currently informed’’ of all intelligence activities. Congress should be briefed on the threats to the United States in a timely manner, not simply when it is politically expedient.

Unfortunately, there is little else other than a sharp rebuke about how Bush's actions undermined Congress's role in national security.

There is plenty more in those 121 pages. It would also be a good idea for us to read the next report when it comes out, likely within a few weeks.

Like the rest of the committee's webpage, there is next to nothing about the subcommittees. These explanations are culled from other sources.

Subcommittee on Terrorism/HUMINT (human intelligence), Analysis and Counterintelligence

Mike Thompson of California is the chair and Mike Rogers of Michigan is the ranking member.

From the Napa Valley Register article announcing Thompson's appointment as chair of the subcommittee:

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over such agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the national security aspects of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence aspects of the departments of State, Energy, Treasury and Homeland Security.

As chairman, Thompson directs the subcommittee’s hearings, investigations and legislative initiatives.

Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence

C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland is the chair of the subcommittee and Mac Thornberry of Texas is the ranking member.

I've got nothing. Any assistance would be appreciated. Presumably, this committee would look at the technology side of intelligence gathering (phones, computers, etc.), but I could be wildly wrong on that one.

Subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management

Anna Eshoo of California is the subcommittee chair and Sue Myrick of North Carolina is the ranking member.

Jurisdiction described by Scientists and Engineers for America.

Oversees policy and management of the 16 government agencies within the United States intelligence community, as well as performs oversight of the policies governing the designation of classified intelligence information.

This seems to be an internal policies and procedures subcommittee. I did find this Government Accountability Office report (PDF) indicating that the subcommittee was involved with security clearance reforms within the government.

Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is the subcommittee chair and Jeff Miller of Florida is the ranking member.

Like most of the other committees, the oversight committee has the responsibility for conducting investigations into allegations of wrong-doing at agencies under the committee's jurisdiction.

That's it for this week. Next week, I think I will look at the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. With the passage of the Budget Resolution, these committees will be considering how money will be spent in FY 2010.

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