Oversight of CIA’s Secret Operations Is Untidy but on Target

<i> Gregory F. Treverton, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served the first Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His latest book is "Covert Action: The Limit of Intervention in the Post-War World" (Basic Books, 1987). </i>

Both the Reagan Administration and Congress have been scoring points lately in the debate over congressional oversight of secret operations. Not withstanding these brouhahas, Congress’ role in overseeing secret CIA operations has not worked badly.

The Administration scored first when House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) seemed to leak information about covert operations, charging that the Central Intelligence Agency has supported the Nicaraguan opposition in provoking a confrontation with the Sandinista government. Congress had its day last week, however, when the Washington Post printed a story claiming that broad Administration authorizations for the secret war against terrorism had, in wording unknown at least for a time to the congressional oversight committees, appeared to permit assassinations.

Yet there was less to both stories than met the eye. It hardly came as a surprise to know that the United States has been supporting the opposition in Nicaragua, both secretly and openly. And, as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) put it, “you don’t need to have a Ph.D. in intelligence analysis” to bet that those groups had been active in protests and other anti-government activities.

If, as Administration officials said, the CIA did not organize, or even necessarily support, specific acts of opposition like the July rally in Nandaime, Nicaragua, that is beside the point. Clandestine relationships are inherently hard to control. Yet the United States cannot escape identification with the actions of those it supports, whether or not it likes them in specific cases.


The terrorism story underscored perils of congressional oversight familiar from the debate over aid to the Contras: Congress cannot know what it is not told; and, perhaps more important because more frequent, the wording of presidential authorizations, or “findings,” often is ambiguous or controversial. What does it mean that actions “must be and are deemed” to be lawful? When CIA aid to the Contras was cut off in 1984, Congress and the Administration argued again and again over what others in the Administration were permitted to do to help the Contras.

Covert operators in the executive branch always want a broad finding to permit them to adapt to fast-changing circumstances, yet those broad findings frequently look to Congress like licenses if not to kill, then to do almost anything else.

However, most of the time the process of congressional oversight has worked well. Aid to the Contras was as divisive within the Congress as it was throughout the nation, but in almost every other case there has been a near consensus within the congressional intelligence committees.

The House and Senate committees have been informed of covert actions and have recorded their views. Sometimes those views have prevailed. And at other times, they have said, in the words of one staff member, “Hey, do you know risky that is?” Hearing “yes,” they have let the program go ahead despite their doubts. They did so in the case of Angola, letting the Administration resume covert aid in 1986 to Jonas Savimbi’s opposition force to the tune of about $15 million a year.


The Reagan Administration wanted to make use of covert action much more frequently than its predecessor had, and the oversight committees, reflecting the mood of Congress and probably of the American people as well, assented to that expansion of covert action. The centerpiece of the Reagan program was aid to the resistance in Afghanistan--more than $500 million a year by 1986.

Wright’s indiscretion is bound to fuel the latest debate over whether Congress should always be notified of covert actions. On its face, the debate seems trivial: Both sides agree that normally the President should notify the committee, and so the immediate dispute is over whether requirement to notify within 48 hours of beginning an operation will be binding or not. Both sides cite examples to suit their preferences: for the proponents of a mandatory requirement, it was arms sales to Iran; for the opponents, an instant during the Carter Administration when Canada offered to help in smuggling U.S. hostages out of Iran but only if Congress was not notified.

Yet behind the politics, the argument is about not only the powers of the President, but about where to strike the balance between expediency and accountability. Over the past two decades the balance has wisely moved toward accountability. Yet there can be no full resolutions to the dilemma, for it is rooted in the paradox of secret operations in a democracy. Because major covert actions will not remain secret, Presidents will be well advised, before the fact, to ask themselves whether the covert action could bear the test of disclosure--would it still seem sensible once it was public?

The views of congressional overseers are a surrogate for what the public would think if it could know of the operations. The process cannot be tidy, but it is about the best we can do, Wright and the terrorism findings notwithstanding.