But the classification barrier may not be as watertight as committee members make it out to be. Senate Resolution 400, which established the intelligence committee in 1976, has a section specifically devoted to committee oversight of the classification system, which is directed by the executive branch. If a member of the committee feels that classified information is of valid public interest, he or she can ask that it be declassified.
“The Select Committee may, subject to provisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such a disclosure,” the resolution reads.
When Wyden was asked if he ever used that provision to attempt to get information declassified during his time on the committee, he said “I don’t know which specific provision you’re talking about.”
Certainly, trying to determine how individual committee members feel about Syria policy can be frustrating. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Warner, D-Va., refused to state a clear opinion, citing classification.
Others expressed general opinions, though they would say nothing about just what the Obama administration had proposed. Sometimes it was difficult to know from their comments if they were in favor or opposed. “I’m worried we’re behind the curve,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., “(We should get involved) only if we’re ahead of the curve.”
A rare exception was Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine. He spoke candidly about his personal views on American involvement. “We need to be involved to some extent in helping out the opposition,” he said. He called training an imperative, said anti-tank weapons need to be included in any arms shipments, and he hinted that the U.S. should consider strikes against some Syrian government resources, if that became necessary.
The answer didn’t reveal any details of the administration’s plans, but it did offer a clear picture of where he stood. Later, King explained what he thought were the rules about discussion of Syria.
“I think the specifics of the administration’s plan, and the specifics of the actions of the committee, are classified, and should remain confidential,” he said. As for members’ opinions, however, that’s not classified.
But, he said, “That’s their call” on whether to talk about it or not.
Harper, of the Cato Institute, said the tendency for lawmakers to cite classification also sheds light on a pattern of legislative deference to the executive branch, which determines what is and isn’t classified, that undercuts the concept of checks and balances.
“The government works because of a chain of oversight,” Harper said. “Secrecy gets in there and it breaks those chains. So the public can’t oversee Congress. Congress can’t oversee the executive branch. Within executive branch agencies, oversight breaks down. It’s utterly corrosive of democratic processes that we otherwise take for granted.”
Refusing to state an opinion on a classified matter robs people of the chance to objectively assess whether an elected official is representing their interests.
“Nobody’s opinion is classified,” said Aftergood. “There may be specific facts or details of either military operations or intelligence sources that are properly classified, but one’s opinion about current events or about preferred outcomes is absolutely not classified.
“And to say that it is is disingenuous or dishonest.”