In a January 16 USA Today column, Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker quoted Rep. Chris Carney (D-PA) as "warning about a congressional probe of pre-Iraq war intelligence failures" without noting Carney's prior employment in a Pentagon intelligence unit that played a key role in creating that intelligence. Baker, in his column, argued that congressional Democrats should conduct vigilant oversight but warned them to guard against "excess zeal" that could turn oversight into an inquisition. He wrote that "legitimate questions can be raised about overdoing oversight" and noted that Carney had "raised the warning about a congressional probe of pre-Iraq war intelligence failures, saying that such an investigation would burden the CIA and other agencies at the very time that their vigilance is crucial." Baker then cited a quote from Carney in a November 28, 2006, New York Times article, and, pointing to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, wrote that "Carney is correct in urging caution, especially in avoiding the peril of using oversight to settle political scores." But while Baker identified Carney as a "a former active-duty military intelligence officer," he did not mention, as the Times article he cited did, that Carney was "assigned to" an intelligence unit in 2002 that occupies a key role in the prewar Iraq intelligence narrative: the Pentagon's Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group (PCTEG), part of then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith's office.
As noted in the Times article, "[i]n the summer and fall of 2002, Mr. Carney was at the center of the storm, briefing George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, and Stephen J. Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, on the Feith unit's assessment of any links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. At the time, the unit was creating controversy within the government for arguing that there was significant evidence of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda."
As Media Matters for America has noted, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's investigation of the PCTEG is a long-delayed part of "phase two" of the committee's investigation into pre-Iraq war intelligence failures. Media Matters has also noted that another of the "phase two" reports, released on September 8, 2006, concluded that "Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qa'ida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qa'ida to provide material or operational support," and that "[n]o postwar information indicates that Iraq intended to use al-Qa'ida or any other terrorist group to strike the United States homeland before or during Operation Iraqi Freedom."
From Baker's USA Today column titled "Oversight and Democrats: Easy, now. (But not too easy.)":
"Oversight" has become one of the most widely heard words to ricochet around the national political sphere since the congressional elections. It's one of those peculiar terms that has two definitions that are essentially contradictory. Check out the definition in Webster's New World Dictionary:
- "Supervision, esp. when careful or vigilant," and
- "An unintentional, careless mistake or omission."
In the previous Congress, the second definition fit very nicely the reluctance of the Republican members to hold the Bush administration accountable on such issues as the Iraq war and energy policy. The new Democratic-led Congress will certainly favor the first definition. But while the Republicans in the last Congress resembled the clueless Inspector Clouseau in their approach to supervising the executive branch, could there be a danger that in their zeal, the Democrats will emulate instead the implacable Inspector Javert? Even worse, could it be a combination of both fictional gumshoes? Whatever the eventual result, the oversight hearings got off to a flying start in both houses last week with hearings on topics as diverse as Medicare drug benefits and the plight of Iraqi refugees.
Not too hot, not too cold
Another potential problem in oversight is excess zeal, and legitimate questions can be raised about overdoing oversight. Chris Carney, a Democrat, is a former active-duty military intelligence officer who was just elected as a House member from Pennsylvania. He has raised the warning about a congressional probe of pre-Iraq war intelligence failures, saying that such an investigation would burden the CIA and other agencies at the very time that their vigilance is crucial.
"Let's win the war first, then maybe look at how we got into it," Carney told The New York Times. It is true that past exercises of congressional oversight, such as the notorious Army-McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, damaged the institutions they probed, and Carney is correct in urging caution, especially in avoiding the peril of using oversight to settle political scores.
Tempted as the Democrats might be to launch numerous fishing expeditions as payback for years of GOP dominance and arrogance, Americans are sick of tit-for-tat politics.
Rep. Henry Waxman -- whose House Committee on Government Reform has, in his own words, "jurisdiction over everything" -- has promised to use oversight judiciously. "Doing oversight doesn't mean issuing subpoenas," he said. "It means trying to get information."
Waxman is a tough interrogator, but so much information over the past several years has been withheld that we can afford to tolerate some aggressive probing. The greater risk is the peril of being too passive.