Congress’ struggle with secrecy dates to the creation of the nation. Originally, the Senate and House weren’t required to meet in public, only to keep a journal of their proceedings. The House quickly opened up, since members had to run for re-election and wanted the public to notice them, while the Senate stayed closed for several years.
Senate Historian Donald Ritchie noted that the Senate kept its “executive sessions” – usually involving treaties and nominations – closed until 1929, bowing to the leaks that seemed to be coming from the senators themselves.
Since then, the Senate has conducted 53 closed sessions, including three in the last decade. Only one involved an intelligence matter, an Intelligence Committee probe into the Iraq war. The others involved a judge’s impeachment trial and a U.S.-India atomic energy pact.
The Senate has chosen to be bound by the executive branch’s secrecy rules, meaning that if someone violates them, he or she can be penalized – and that rarely if ever happens.
Congress has long struggled with how to deal with intelligence agencies. A Congressional Research Service report last year found the history “an often-perplexing, sometimes controversial and always difficult responsibility.”
Part of the problem, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is that “not only does intelligence overlap both foreign and domestic areas, but it also covers a diversity of subjects, agencies and procedures within each.”
There’s also tension between the executive and legislative branches. A 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report into alleged torture that occurred during the CIA’s secret terrorist-detention program has yet to be made public, more than six months after it was completed. The committee has deferred to the CIA the declassification of the report, which concludes, according to the committee’s public statements, that the CIA vastly exaggerated the value of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Congress also has “become hesitant” on national security matters because most members don’t receive the same kinds of detailed national security briefings that the president does, Edwards said – an inequity that leaves Congress ill-prepared to challenge executive branch policies.
“The Congress has gotten so much into the idea of deference to the executive,” Edwards added.
Congress’ intelligence committees have broad authority over intelligence work. The Senate panel, headed by Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has 15 members: eight Democrats and seven Republicans. That ratio, unlike those of other committees, was set by law, so the committee would be encouraged to work in a nonpartisan fashion.
The committee members know they have a special mission.
“While all senators have access to classified intelligence assessments, access to intelligence sources and methods, programs and budgets is generally limited to Intelligence Committee members,” the committee mission statement says, though Defense Appropriation Subcommittee members also have that access.
President Barack Obama is required to make sure that the intelligence panel remains fully informed of intelligence matters. Agencies must tell the committee – usually in writing – of their activities and analyses, including covert actions and failures.
At times, though, Obama can inform only certain top officials of the committee, as well as Congress’ leadership, of certain covert activities. Other committee members will get general descriptions of such activities.
The House Intelligence Committee has 12 Republicans and nine Democrats. It closes its meetings if disclosing the information would “endanger national security, compromise sensitive law enforcement information” or meet other criteria.