Congress, Examine Yourself

I‘ve written several times about all the important aspects of the Bush torture regime that the Senate report does not bother to look at, but David Ignatius adds another one: The lack of attention paid to Congress itself, which was informed of the use of torture and did nothing about it.

“The CIA briefed Congress approximately 30 times” on interrogation, according to six former CIA directors or deputy directors in an article Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal. “The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection.”

Are the former directors right? Not according to the Senate report, which claims: “The CIA has actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight of the program.” For example, the report notes that the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee wasn’t briefed about the brutal interrogation techniques until September 2002, a month after they were first used against Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah.

Let’s look at the 2002 complaint. A CIA review of “contemporaneous records” shows that this initial briefing to Sens. Bob Graham and Richard Shelby and Reps. Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi included “a history of the Zubaydah interrogation, an overview of the material acquired, the resistance techniques Zubaydah had employed, and the reason for deciding to use the enhanced measures,” along with a description of “the enhanced techniques that had been employed.”

Did the members of Congress push back hard, as we now realize they should have? Did they demand more information and set stricter limits? Did they question details about the interrogation techniques that were being used? It appears that, with rare exceptions, they did not. Like the CIA contractors and officers who devised the program, the Justice Department officials who endorsed the legality of the harsh techniques, and the Bush administration that authorized their use, members of Congress made mistakes. They were silently complicit. They just don’t own up to that fact.

The Senate report doesn’t hold members accountable. Instead, it blames others. This culture of blame-shifting and hypocrisy matters because it undermines oversight of intelligence activities: History (including the latest dark chapter on interrogation) suggests that members are for questionable activities when they’re politically popular, and against them when public opinion shifts.

Bingo. Congress does the same thing with every war proposed by every president. They know that war is almost automatically popular in this country, at least until the bodybags start coming home in large numbers or it becomes clear we aren’t going to “win” the war, so Congress never actually uses their Constitutional authority to declare war or to reject it, preferring to give it tacit approval that allows them to later claim they were against it (I’m looking at you, Hillary Clinton). Congress is a bunch of cowards. Always has been.

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  • grumpyoldfart

    Congress is a bunch of cowards. Always has been.

    At least the lobbyists are able to pay the politicians huge bribes which adequately compensate the congressmen for insults like that.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Yeah, hell of a job of “oversight”, assholes.

  • Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    Congress does the same thing with every war proposed by every president. They know that war is almost automatically popular in this country, at least until the bodybags start coming home in large numbers or it becomes clear we aren’t going to “win” the war, so Congress never actually uses their Constitutional authority to declare war or to reject it . . .

    Wildly untrue. The last three big wars where the U.S. committed on-the-ground divisions had Congressional approval: The Iraq War, The War in Afghanistan, and the Gulf War.

  • Artor

    Michael, have any of those actually been officially “war?” I was under the impression we were still going with the euphemism, “extended military engagement” or some such nonsense. IIRC, the last time the US officially declared war was WWII.

  • Michael Heath

    Artor,

    In all three wars I mention, the president sought authorization from Congress to go to war and received authorization to go war by a positive vote of Congress.

  • jameshanley

    Congress is a bunch of cowards. Always has been.

    That’s an easy condemnation, but it doesn’t dig into the”why” question. Consider that every congressmember must bear in mind their constituency’s preferences. In part that’s just democratic responsiveness. So consider if Congressmembers were “brave,” and opposed their constituents’ support for war: some, maybe many, of those would defeated for re-election, leading us back to a situation of war-supporting (at least superficially) Congressmembers.

    So the problem really is the public. Or it may be the tight linkage between the public and individual legislators combined with a largely independent executive. In a party-list parliamentary system where 1) MPs are not beholden to individual constituencies, and 2) the executive (PM) has to get the support of his cabinet (also MPs, and collectively powerful vis a vis the PM), casually going to war may be harder (emphasis on “may”).

  • D. C. Sessions

    The last time the United States Congress declared war was 1941.

    Since then, it’s been Presidential actions, with Congress preserving its honor but not objecting strongly.

  • colnago80

    Re James Hanley @ #6

    Ah yes, the parliamentary list system that works so well in Israel. Not.

  • colnago80

    Oddly enough when a few Congress critters who chaired or were ranking on the appropriate committees were briefed on the CIA activities, the only objection came from then Rep. Jane Harmon of California, who was oddly enough a hawk on issues of war.