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CIA and NSA Wrongdoing Requires Independent Investigation, Says Former Church Committee Staff

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Burt Wides, a former chief investigator for the Church Committee, who helped create the Senate and House intelligence committees, says these oversight bodies are now too entwined with the intelligence agencies; further reason for an independent committee.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

Forty years ago, the Senate Church Committee investigating wrongdoings by the CIA, FBI, and NSA was formed. Well, just this week, 15 former members of that committee signed a letter saying there needs to be a new Church Committee into similar wrongdoings.

Now joining us is one of the people who signed that letter, and he’s in the studio. Burt Wides played a major role in the creation of both congressional and White House oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. He was chief of investigations of the CIA for the Church Committee, the first ever congressional investigation of U.S. domestic and foreign surveillance activities. He also helped create the Senate and House intelligence committees. He ran the president’s Intelligence Oversight Board for Jimmy Carter, served as senior counsel to Congressman John Conyers. He also served as chief of staff or senior counsel to three U.S. senators, including Edward Kennedy.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So why do we need a new Church Committee?

WIDES: Well, the question is what the current intelligence committees can do. At the time of the Church Committee creation, a lot of people don’t realize that that was a select committee for only two years. There was no intelligence committee in either the House or the Senate. There was a Agriculture Committee, Armed Services, but really no oversight of our intelligence agencies.

As a result of the Church Committee, you have the two intelligence committees of a permanent nature were created. And they’ve done a lot of good work. But right now they are so entangled in this imbroglio with the CIA and the Justice Department that I think there’s a feeling—there are two feelings, one, right now, that you need an independent look at the whole question of what happened on this report, on the accusations of wrongdoing by each side against the other.

And then there’s been another feeling that’s been in existence almost from the beginning of the Obama administration, when a lot of people, mostly liberals, were disappointed that he didn’t more vigorously investigate (and he famously said, I think we need to look forward, not backward) a lot of things that happened during the Bush administration in Cheney’s war on terror.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: We’re still evaluating how we are going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And, obviously, we’re going to be looking at past practices, and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.


WIDES: And there’s been a movement for such an independent look at that. But I think it never came to pass (A) because President Obama didn’t want it, and (B) because now you had two intelligence committees who, presumably, would not be anxious to give up their jurisdiction to some third, independent one. But I think because of the question about how effective the oversight was with regard to the NSA and Mr. Snowden’s revelations, and now this fight, there’s a feeling that some sort of independent commission would be useful.

JAY: Now, I know there’s been a lot of focus on John Brennan and his potential of liability, criminal liability, John Brennan, now head of the CIA. But that statement that you quoted of President Obama, it seems to me that if in the current controversy, which is over this 6,300-page report that the Senate did, which, apparently, is quite scathing of the CIA and in all likelihood points to criminal violations, that it really puts President Obama in the corner and the spot, because, you know, when he says, let’s look forward, not let’s look backwards, in theory he should have been briefed on this by then and decides not to prosecute, and it creates a precedent, number one, that the president and the vice president are above the law, and then, secondarily, creates a precedent, more or less, that the CIA is above the law.

WIDES: Well, I don’t know how fully he was briefed at the time or how fully he’s really ever been briefed about the contents of this report. The statement he made about looking forward, not backward, was extremely early in his administration. I think it was just—not very long after he was sworn in. So he wouldn’t have—.

JAY: But a lot had come out. Even if he—.

WIDES: A lot of things had—.

JAY: And it was in the press.

WIDES: No, I understand that, but in terms of the kind of detail that’s in this report, which, according to the press, has two main themes or results that are controversial. One, there’s the suggestion, about which we haven’t seen much detail, that it was more horrible, more shocking than we’ve heard so far in terms of techniques used, circumstances, people’s reaction that were filmed, and so forth; secondly, that contrary to the film that was made about the Osama bin Laden raid, it was not particularly—the results of the torture were not particularly significant, and that in general it was not remotely productive enough to warrant the extremes to which it was taken, and in some cases was actually counterproductive and slowed us down in going after top people. So I think that degree of detail I doubt he’s ever been briefed on.

JAY: How could he not, certainly by this point?

WIDES: Well, the president has a lot of things to do.

JAY: We know it. He’s got to know it. Maybe not the—.

WIDES: Well, I don’t know what’s—.

JAY: Not the exact specifics, but—.

WIDES: I don’t know what’s in the [crosstalk] I mean, I really don’t know what’s in it, and I don’t know how much the CIA—.

JAY: Well, the Senate Intelligence—

WIDES: They know.

JAY: —Committee knows. So.

WIDES: And the CIA knows. And I don’t know how much the CIA has briefed the president in detail about the worst details that might be in the report.

JAY: Well, let me ask a bigger question, ’cause you have more experience than hardly anybody in this issue of civilian oversight, political oversight over the CIA, especially your work on the Church Committee. And just to remind everybody, tell us just very quickly—we are going to do another interview that really gets into detail about what the Church Committee did, but just quickly give us a few sentences for people who don’t know.

WIDES: Well, for those who don’t remember—and there are a lot of people who weren’t around,—

JAY: Or too young to know, yeah.

WIDES: —the Church Committee was not called that for any religious reason. Senator Frank Church of Idaho was the chairman. Secondly, what we did, for the first time ever, was go to the CIA, FBI, NSA, and basically look through all of their files or investigate all of their operations, in the case of the FBI going back into the ’30s, as to a lot of questionable activities that liberals had been complaining about, accusing terrible things, to see what really had happened.

Then a small portion of that we made public, and we had hearings. So, among other things, it exposed the NSA’s original MINARET program, spying, wiretapping, and eavesdropping electronically on opponents of Vietnam, which is what led to the FISA law and the FISA court, the FISC court. We exposed in more detail than came out in the media a Pennsylvania raid into the FBI office, the lurid details of the COINTEL program. We exposed the CIA domestically spying—.

JAY: COINTEL, which had a lot to do with infiltrating and disrupting activist groups, particularly black activist groups.

WIDES: More than that: trying to get them to kill each other. And we could go into that at some point.

But we also exposed assassination plots. We exposed all of the activity against Castro, which people see in the docudramas on television. But we also exposed the CIA spying and infiltrating with the FBI on Vietnam opposition, because President Johnson and then Nixon couldn’t believe there was that much indigenous opposition to the war.

So we exposed a lot of things. And it led to a number of reforms, not only the establishment of the intelligence committees: the Intelligence Oversight Board in the White House, like an inspector general in the White House that I set up; and it also resulted in a number of laws and executive orders to protect American civil liberties and so forth.

JAY: Is there something fundamentally structurally the problem, in the sense of—at the time of the Church Committee, and, I guess, for some time afterwards, there was a lot of attention on this. People were in—you know, the issue of oversight had a high priority. But over the years, did the CIA more or less not get back to being what the CIA was before the Church Committee? Especially because these layers of oversight, as you mentioned in another interview, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the other layers, they wind up being so integrated, so embedded, so entwined. Someone told me they see Dianne Feinstein as being like the CIA mole on the Hill. So it’s kind of surprising, you know, she’s standing up now. But she’s really standing up about the rights of the Senate, not so much about the substance of the issue of what the CIA’s really up to.

WIDES: Well, when I was at the president’s Intelligence Oversight Board for Jimmy Carter, it was relatively—within a few years of the Church Committee. And I would say in the agencies they were trying to run a pretty clean ship. And there were a number of things that we actively looked into and got President Carter to change, but there were not huge things like what we had exposed.

I think, over time, two things, equally important. One, any oversight group gets co-opted, whether it’s this SEC looking at Wall Street or whether it’s the compliance committee of a pharmaceutical board of directors. When that’s compounded with sharing very sensitive secrets daily, that cosiness is exacerbated.

But the other thing, which is probably more important, is that like we divide classical history into BC and AD, I divide recent American history into ANE and BNE—before 9/11, after 9/11.

JAY: Well, how about before and after Reagan, too? Because in terms of the CIA being involved in backing coups and illegal activities, the Iran-Contragate—and you can go on and on—I mean, isn’t that where the big break after the Church Committee comes? The CIA’s all the way back at it by the time Reagan’s—with Reagan.

WIDES: Yes, but you were asking about people’s reaction, and what I’m saying is that after the Church Committee revelations, at least the liberal community was outraged, and especially because they were spying on First Amendment activities of Americans dissenting, etc.

What I find among many of the same types of liberals who were outraged then and backed all these supports, very frankly, is I don’t care, I don’t care, even if they’re spying on my First Amendment activities—not put that baldly, but essentially—and I don’t care if you can’t, if the government can’t show that it’s tremendously helpful in stopping terrorism; if it infinitesimally is going to reduce the risk of one more attack or my husband getting blown up at Grand Central Station, do it. That’s the big change.

JAY: So all the culture of oversight gets thrown overboard under the rubric of 9/11.

WIDES: Of prevention. If the real bottom line between balancing security and civil liberties is that if you want to have both, as Obama says he does, and you balance it, you can do that. Franklin said, if you think you can do it and you give up civil liberties, you’re not going to have freedom; if you give it up in the name of national security, you won’t have either.

The problem is, if you want to maximize prevention—and the mantra after 9/11 was never again, whatever it takes—and that was not only in Washington; it was for most Americans. If you want to maximize prevention, you want to know what every American is thinking, reading, and praying, and with whom they’re communicating and associating. And then you have Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. So that’s the problem, of preventing that and getting people to understand you really need to balance. And that’s apart from collecting so much information on the surveillance end that it’s counterproductive, because, as many experts have said, it interferes with focusing on the real threats.

JAY: And so isn’t part of that then accountability for criminal activities right up to the top? If Bush-Cheney are involved or Rumsfeld’s involved in directly authorizing illegal activities, you can’t, quote, look forward. You’ve got to hold accountable if leadership of the CIA is involved in this. Those 6,300 pages, if one believes in civilian oversight—the Senate report, not the internal CIA report, the Senate report—if one believes in transparency, civilian oversight, and the importance of all of this—and President Obama says he wants to reveal it all, but he isn’t. But the Senate doesn’t have to wait for President Obama. If Dianne Feinstein is serious about this, why doesn’t she put it to a vote? Because the Senate has the ability to go public on their own, do they not?

WIDES: That’s—yes, that’s something that has been discussed in the press amazingly little, sparsely. The Church Committee took the position that Congress has the power under the Constitution to make anything public that they feel should be made public. Senators are cleared for—they don’t need clearance. They constitutionally have access, should have access to everything. So 98 percent of what the Church Committee wanted to publish, we worked out with the CIA how to do it and how to conceal sensitive information. But on a few items, we went ahead and published it over the administration’s claim that it couldn’t be published. So when we set up the committees, we put Section 8 into the Senate resolution setting up the committees, and it says that if the committee by majority vote feels something should be made public that the executive branch says is too classified, they tell the president. And if he responds in writing, no, you can’t, the Senate leadership, the same in the House, would send it to the Senate leaders and they would have a closed debate, and if there was a majority vote, it would be made public. And it’s been used, but, ironically, only once, by the Republicans, during the great controversy over the Panama Canal treaty when the Americans were so upset about losing the canal. And there were the votes in committee and on the floor, and some aspects of the negotiations with the Panamanians that the Carter administration said could not possibly be made public were made public.

JAY: So if they’re serious, they could do it, but it’s not very likely.

WIDES: Well, I don’t think they would want to do it for the thousands of pages, because they couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t something in there that might be dangerous to security or to sources or sensitive. But they certainly could do it with regard to the conclusions, which is what Brennan and the CIA are upset about.

JAY: And the culpability of the people involved in all this.

Alright. Thanks for joining us.

WIDES: You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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