So where’s the ultra-secret CIA beef?

Published 9:42 am Friday, July 24, 2009

Years ago in a Wendy’s fast food commercial that became famous a customer looked inside a competitor’s hamburger bun and shouted out the now well known question.

Today the question remains a metaphor for challenging surface over substance on an issue, like the issue of the ultra secret CIA program recently exposed to a surprised Congress.

Shortly after 9/11, in one of the many moves by the government and its agencies to protect America ffrom further terrorists attacks, the administration authorized the CIA to develop “Hit Squads” to go anywhere in the world where al Qaeda had operatives, disrupt those operatives, arrest them or kill them. All in all not a bad idea for some very bad people.

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But the program languished under George Tenet at the CIA, who saw many problems in executing the program in friendly and unfriendly nations without cooperation and participation by those nations. When Tenet retired, his replacements, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, re-started the program.

Agents were hired, trained and deployed as the program moved toward implementation. But apparently the new CIA director, Leon Panetta was not informed of the program until June of this year. When he was informed he reportedly asked two questions: Had Congress been briefed and had the program been valuable? The answer to both questions was “No.”

Panetta immediately went to Congress to inform the intelligence committees of the program. It could not have been easy for him to make the trek, given that only weeks before he had assured Congress that it was not the policy of the CIA to lie to Congress or withhold information from Congress.

Congress, particularly the House Intel Committee was not pleased. The 1947 National Security Act requires all U.S. Intel agencies to keep Congress “fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity.” It would be fair to say that a program where resources had already been invested and placed in the field would, at the very least, qualify as “anticipated” intelligence activity.

The House Intelligence Committee, in response, has authorized an investigation to determine how and why this breakdown of communications has come to exist, blocking the oversight function of Congress over U.S. Intelligence activities.

But the question to be considered about the investigation is “Where’s the Beef?”

No one was killed, the program never became active, and, ultimately, congress was informed. Further, challenges to the work of the CIA may tend to undermine the agency in its aggressiveness to protect the nation. After all, this was a program all about getting the Bad Guys.

But there is “Beef” to the investigation on several fronts. First, Panetta told the committee that he was told Vice President Cheney directed the CIA not to report on the program to Congress. Such an instruction would be a violation of law if it were determined to be accurate.

Second, the CIA has in its history attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, spying on U.S. citizens, renditions and torture by waterboarding. So oversight is a very serious responsibility of congress over an agency that has all too often blurred the lines of conduct in protecting the nation.

Finally, congress has, in recent years, surrendered a great deal of its oversight authority to the administrative branch of government. This is not what the founders intended, nor what best serves the nation. We need Congressional oversight, and if this investigation does nothing more than alert government agencies that oversight is back and congress is watching, that alone is good for America.

There is the Beef.

Jim Crawford is a contributing columnist for The Tribune and a former educator at Ohio University Southern.