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


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.