Sen. Ron Wyden Would Kind of Like to Know What Is Going On at the CIA

The Senate Committee on Intelligence member would like to do his job


"Could the administration at least confirm whether drones have been renamed 'Doombots'?"

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sits on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and therefore would have some legislative oversight over what our Central Intelligence Agency is doing. Or so you might think. Wyden, last seen trying (and failing) to get the National Security Agency to give an estimate as to how many Americans the government had spied on through application of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's secret court, has sent a letter to CIA Director nominee John Brennan to try to get information about the administration's use of drones to kill people. Via Wired's Danger Room:

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter on Monday to John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism adviser and nominee to be head of the CIA, asking for an outline of the legal and practical rules that underpin the U.S. government's targeted killing of American citizens suspected of working with al-Qaida. The Obama administration has repeatedly resisted disclosing any such information about its so-called "disposition matrix" targeting terrorists, especially where it concerns possible American targets. Brennan reportedly oversees that matrix from his White House perch, and would be responsible for its execution at CIA director.

"How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?" Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, asks in the letter, acquired by Danger Room. "Does the President have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?"

Wyden's letter shows how little the Obama Administration, the CIA, and the Department of Justice thinks of the Senate's role as oversight:

"[A]s you may be aware, my staff and I have been asking for over a year the list of countries in which the intelligence community has used its lethal counterterrorism authorities. To my surprise and dismay, the intelligence community has declined to provide me with a complete list. In my judgment, every member of the Senate Intelligence Committee should know (or be able to find out) all of the countries where where United States intelligence agencies have killed or attempted to kill people. The fact that this request was denied reflects poorly on the Obama Administration's commitment to cooperation with congressional oversight."

The letter goes on to explain that requests to the Justice Department to declassify some relevant documents about cybersecurity are going completely unanswered. Not even a response. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic takes note of the dangers of inability of the legislative branch to hold the executive branch accountable:

The body he sits on, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is charged with providing "vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States," to ensure "that they conform with the Constitution and U.S. law." There is no one in America more justified in demanding to know the official legal rationale behind actions like targeted killings. Obama isn't just keeping this information from the American people. He isn't just hiding his legal reasoning from the U.S. Congress. He is stonewalling one of 15 senators that federal law establishes as the most important check on secret abuses by the CIA.  

Understand that the CIA's capacity to commit abuses is anything but theoretical. As Obama well knows, its history is rife with examples of its personnel using the cover of secrecy to do things that the American people and their elected representatives would have never willingly permitted. CIA abuses inspired the creation of the very same Select Committee on Intelligence in 1976. It began after the Church Committee discovered and revealed abuses as varied as secretly opening the mail of American citizens, attempting to assassinate foreign leaders, trying to monitor private citizens who opposed the Vietnam War, and illegal wiretapping.

A significant amount of traditional media coverage appears to be more focused on the lack of minority diversity among the president's cabinet picks for his second term. If the rather lackluster coverage of the FISA Amendments Act renewal is an indicator, don't expect much challenging of the administration's intelligence secrecy during Brennan's nomination.

NEXT: Feds Release Snooping Document, After Making it Unreadable

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  1. Not surprising at all. Nobody actually gives a shit about the important things going on in gov’t. And it’s always been that way. As George Wallace said 50 years ago:

    “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

  2. I think the last people to seriously try reigning in the CIA were the older Kennedy brothers. Look how that turned out. Consider how Hoover ran the FBI through what, five decades, with Presidents fearing his ministrations.

    The fact is that the bureaucracy has a power that none dare challenge. Any politician that tries to reign them in will be swept away like bits of moist exoskeletal residue being swept aside by the windshield wipers when a bug gets in the way of a car on the highway.

    Collapse is inevitable. Hunker down and try no to be in the way when the system breaks apart.

    1. I just read my first JFK “conspiracy theory” book. Mary’s Mosaic. Factually and logically, it seemed OK. Not great, but decent. The authors romanticism and insipid left wingerism are a little distracting at times, but not so much as to ruin things.

      Is there an HnR consensus on the best JFK “conspiracy theory” book?

      1. I don’t think there is a good book since there is too much BS in the air. It’s like arguing over who poisoned a pharaoh or a Roman emperor with only a copy of Tacitus to work with.

        I have no idea whether the CIA bumped off the Kennedy’s or not. The fact is that there were lots of people with motive and the investigations were kind of whitewashy, probably to deflect the gimlet eye of public opinion from focusing suspiciously on the usual suspects.

        1. Posner’s?

          It’s certainly one of the weightiest.

          The McAdams site, last I checked, tried to draw together a lot of the JFK conspiracy stuff and systematically debunk it.

          If you don’t like Oswald for it, one interesting candidate with motive, that never seems to get mentioned, is Madame Nhu. Kind of hard to put together a plot in 3 weeks, and she certainly wasn’t going to be pulling the trigger herself, but it’s hard to find someone with a better motive.

          Though Sam Giancana getting killed the day before he was going to testify about Mafia involvement in any alleged JFK plots, was a nice touch.

  3. It’s totally absurd that Congress tolerates any administration silence on any issue. There’s no national security exception to the Constitution, and the Congress shares that power in large part with the executive, at least in theory.

    1. There’s no national security exception to the Constitution…

      According to the nazgul, yes, there is. And their opinions are the only ones that count.

      1. That’s actually a fuzzier area than it appears, as they dodge a lot of decisions by throwing up their hands and saying, “Political question!” But that logic cuts both ways.

  4. According to that book that gives you like terms for things, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is ineffectual, feeble, useless, inadequate, and neutered.

    They may as well disband for all the good they’re doing.

    1. No CIA funding, one year!

      1. Try that again: No CIA funding for you, one year!

      2. CIA: Hmm.. it says here you checked into a hotel with that waitress two years ago.. I don’t know about you but my wife would be pretty pissed. Now Senator, what where you saying about funding again?

        1. These days? We’ll forgive politicians anything.

        2. The previous CIA director took a powder over his emails to a woman.

          He can detain and kill people randomally around the globe – but he can’t write a dirty email to a pretty girl.

          1. The director is a political appointee.

            The dangerous guys are the permanent staffers.

  5. I hadn’t even heard about the troubles that Wyden is having, maybe because NPR was busy covering the issue of the Obama administration’s lack of minority diversity. Whoops, yep, here it is:

    A significant amount of traditional media coverage appears to be more focused on the lack of minority diversity among the president’s cabinet picks for his second term.

    Sorry, Wyden, you decided to be a Democrat and, you know, care about stuff like this at exactly the wrong time. Try again in 2020. ‘Cause I guaran-damn-tee that they ain’t gonna care with the Biden administration, either.

    1. Ghafla, the distraction.

  6. “How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?”

    The last time I checked the Constitution it required two witnesses to the same overt act of treason.

    1. So you put two cameras on the drones.

  7. “How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?” Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, asks in the letter,

    Awfully damned polite of him to use the word “lawfully” in that sentence.

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