It seems to me that a great number of Congress persons who are either directly involved in intelligence committee oversight or would like to be have a very limited understanding of how the intelligence community actually works and has worked for decades. They also seem to have little understanding of the true rules and realities of classified information. Now that may seem a bit harsh but I keep seeing public statements from them that suggest they either don’t understand or do and prefer political grandstanding.
As an example, I’ve seen a number of Congress members complain that the CIA won’t fully answer their questions and since they themselves do have a security classifications that means the CIA officers must either be stonewalling them or at best intentionally obfuscating. The thing is, all clearances are certainly not the same and there are levels of compartmentalized security controls which go far beyond general clearance levels. A great number of those have to do with key technical assets – space intelligence collection resources and ground signals intelligence. Its estimated that there are well over a hundred special access clearances and that is most likely far below the reality of the matter. While we may sometimes make light, justifiably so, of objections to the release of documents based on sources and methods from 50 years ago, the capabilities of contemporary technical and signals intelligence devices are fundamental to national security and its very easy to compromise such sources in a back and forth dialog. Now of course all that can be handled but the Congressional side of the house needs to appreciate the situation and make special legislative or security provision for getting the answers they need.
Perhaps even more striking to me have been recent remarks from people like Senator McCain that really ought to know better about what CIA headquarters does and does not know at a given time. The ongoing Levinson affair involving analysts using a voluntary and paid asset without higher level authorization is not a new story at all. We cover numerous instances of such things in Shadow Warfare and it is always a risk – both the operations side and the analysis side have made such commitments frequently over the years. Its a matter of mission and career vs. the rules. When hip pocket (in older days vest pocket) arrangements work, they can be extremely productive and everybody is happy. Analysts often cultivate a wide range of voluntary intelligence assets just like the FBI cultivates informants. On occasion such folks have their expenses paid or even receive direct payment, sometimes that arrangement changes and goes back and forth as it seems to have done with Levinson. Details about his changing relationships, unsanctioned at senior levels inside the Agency, can be found in the following article:
While distance relationships with intelligence assets – voluntary or paid – works life is good. Headquarters gets the results of the analysis, not necessarily all the source detail When an asset gets trapped in some fashion, all bets are off. Those of you who recall the Ed Wilson story probably recall how even former intelligence agency employees get in major trouble….Wilson’s defense was that the CIA knew what he was doing (or at least one or two senior officers did) and he was providing information on an ongoing basis. The CIA denied it and he went to jail. Later it turned out there were records of something like 80 ongoing meetings between he and CIA personnel and he then got out of jail. In Shadow Warfare we even cover the fact that the Agency planted at least one or more informants in his Libyan operation.
Other than a bit of a rant, there is a point to all this and its that if Congress is going to whine about oversight it needs to understand the way the CIA really works and put some pragmatic protocols in place. In fact for this and many other reasons we discuss in the book, they really need to make some modifications in the National Security Act of 1947. But actually I don’t think that’s going to happen…..simply because it makes better sound bytes to leave things they way they are and use it to political advantage. Readers of Shadow Warfare will find some Presidents treated less kindly than others, however Congress …well you’ll see…