Oversight gone wrong
Congressional investigations of the executive branch are frequently dominated by partisanship and ideology. Even-keeled and methodical analysis is better. Turning serious inquiries into tendentious exercises weakens oversight. Recent revelations about a high-profile investigation a decade ago offer a relevant and cautionary tale.
Here’s what apparently happened: in 2007 or 2008 the Central Intelligence Agency received a complaint from an agency official alleging that someone he managed had made four sworn statements in congressional testimony which he believed to be “in direct contradiction to official CIA records.” According to the manger, the subordinate “provided a false narrative” in her remarks and was not “as candid as she should have been.”
It seems the CIA Inspector General considered this whistleblower complaint an “urgent concern” and, pursuant to law, conveyed it to the House Intelligence Committee. This was extraordinary. In ten years, the agency transmitted few such notices.
Yet, the House took little action. The complaint was probably quietly sidelined because the whistleblower’s allegations cast doubt on the tentative conclusions of an investigation then being conducted by that chamber’s majority.
Ignoring inconvenient or contrary information is not how congressional oversight should be conducted.
The subject of whistleblower’s filing was Valerie Plame Wilson and her 2007 appearance at a hearing convened by Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) Oversight Committee. Plame’s testimony addressed her role in efforts undertaken by Joseph Wilson (now her late ex-husband) to determine if Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had attempted to procure precursor materials for nuclear explosives. The hearing was part of Waxman’s long-running investigation of pre-Iraq War intelligence issues.
Because the hearing served as a partisan cudgel against the George W. Bush administration and Plame’s remarks comported with the tenor of the inquiry, Waxman and many of his Democratic colleagues uncritically accepted her testimony. Despite claims that their star witness might have made misstatements, after the hearing Waxman only sought CIA materials which Plame said would buttress her testimony.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), then the Oversight Committee’s senior-most Republican, was dissatisfied. More than a year later, in a letter to Waxman, he outlined some of the discrepancies in Plame’s remarks which remained unexamined. (Full disclosure: I helped Davis draft this correspondence.) For example, Plame had given several contradictory accounts of her role in the decision to dispatch her husband to Niger as part of an effort to discern details of Iraq’s potential nuclear ambitions. Given the centrality of this mission to later events, Davis declared that a “clearer understanding” of Valerie Plame’s “role is essential in order to understand the predicate for Mr. Wilson’s trip and the White House’s reaction to it.” After outlining problematic aspects of her testimony, Davis implored Waxman to determine if Plame provided “full and complete” testimony. Waxman never responded.
This ignominious moment in congressional oversight resurfaced last September. Daniel Deyo, revealed his identity as the whistleblower, and described his allegations to the Albuquerque Journal. Assuming Deyo’s recounting of his filing is accurate (the CIA declined to comment), it’s now clear that Deyo had an important perspective from which he raised serious issues. They deserved careful attention, regardless of how his claims might have ultimately been assessed.
Congressional inaction on Deyo’s allegations are especially remarkable because some knew a complaint had been lodged about Plame.
In October 2008, Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), whose membership on the Intelligence Committee made him privy to some communications from the CIA, wrote to Waxman to report that the committee had received “information” from “an employee” which Issa believed called “into serious question” whether Plame’s testimony “was truthful.” Issa also noted that the CIA considered the complaint an “urgent concern.” The correspondence was vague, either because Issa did not know the details or they could not be described in unclassified letter. Issa urged Waxman to “work on a bipartisan basis” to “ensure that this serious matter is promptly and carefully reviewed.”
After the Albuquerque article appeared, I tracked Deyo down and telephoned him about this issue. Deyo emphasized how incurious Congress seemed to be about his filing. He says after the submission, the only contact he had with the Hill was a query from Intelligence Committee staff (with the IG serving as intermediary) asking for suggestions about how to proceed. Despite the gravity of his claims, there is no evidence that Congress took any other steps to evaluate the complaint. If any action was taken, neither Deyo, nor Republicans on the Oversight committee (much less the public) were informed.
Until last month, when Plame lost a primary campaign, she was a congressional candidate in New Mexico. Deyo said he publicized his long-ago actions in part because he opposed Plame’s candidacy. In response to Deyo’s revelations, her campaign insisted that she “testified truthfully and fully.” Plame said that she barely recalled working alongside Deyo and he exaggerated the extent of their professional contact. Furthermore, Plame called his filing a “smear” and a “lie” which encourages “conspiracy theorists.”
This ugly back and forth could have been avoided. Twelve years ago, rather than being shunted aside, claims and responses about Plame’s testimony should have been carefully considered and weighed, regardless of ideological or partisan predilections. To the extent it involved unclassified material, such an inquiry should also have been made public.
In reviewing several important congressional oversight reports in 2015, political scientist Robert Jervis decried their failure “to present any evidence that could undermine their cases, express any uncertainty, or acknowledge any alternative interpretations.” As Jervis suggested, this is not a partisan argument; no doubt there are examples of deficiencies in Republican-led congressional investigations. But, if Congress does not heed such criticism, it may forfeit any claim to conducting unbiased open-minded inquiries.