Holt: Secret CIA Program Was ‘Serious’
After interviewing Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) a few minutes ago, I think I want to revise and extend my comment this morning that most members of Congress alarmed over the revelation of “significant actions” by the CIA that Director Leon Panetta recently stopped were more concerned with not being briefed than by the actions themselves.
“The content of the briefing was serious,” said Holt, speaking about the June 23 briefing when Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee about a still-secret program begun after 9/11. “I don’t think he would’ve launched into this if it were just a trivial matter. It was serious.” (Holt would not discuss the content of the classified activities Panetta recently canceled, but reporting has linked them to an inchoate effort to bolster the CIA’s assassinations capabilities. See this Newsweek story for some of the latest.)
That said, Holt, one of the seven signatories of the congressional letter that announced the program to the public, expressed deep concerns about the fact that the CIA withheld the program from Congress, and put that secrecy on par with the substance of the program itself. “The issue here, as much as anything, is just how far can we let the intelligence [community] go in unexamined activities, dangerous activities. It’s been going on for years and years, and not just under the Bush administration.” He added that since it’s been three and a half decades since the comprehensive congressional reviews of the intelligence community known as the Church and Pike commissions, “I think the public would find some other jawdropping revelations” about what the CIA has committed with minimal oversight.
One of the objections to launching another such comprehensive congressional inquiry — or even to the outrage on the Hill over withholding this current program — is the damage that it’ll do to CIA morale. Retired CIA operative Bob Baer just told ABC, “It’s going to hurt our national security.” Holt says that not only has he not heard any such concerns from inside the agency he oversees, but that expanded oversight would be a remedy for the any operative’s feelings of besiegement. “The CIA should not want to take such risks of various covert action programs over the years without [congressional] oversight,” he said. “You just do a better job when you have to justify your actions to an independent evaluator.”
President Obama, however, is threatening to veto this year’s intelligence funding bill if it doesn’t strip out a provision to expand briefings on the most sensitive CIA activities to the full committee.