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Canada's spies versus others spies abroad. Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Canada's spies versus others spies abroad. Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Andrew Steele

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Shortly before Pearl Harbour, Franklin Roosevelt determined to secretly build an atomic bomb. His Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, asked the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, to put billions of dollars aside for a project he only described as critical to national security.

" I don't want to know why," Rayburn famously answered.

The Texan conspired with a handful of powerful committee chairmen to pad the War Department budget with billions of extra dollars for a black box project simply because the President said it was vital to the national interest.

Rayburn acted this way because he trusted Roosevelt completely to define the national interest.

But decades of subsequent challenges with secret projects convinced the lawmakers in the United States to provide legislative oversight of these covert activities to ensure they are truly fulfilling the national interest.

Revelations earlier in the summer show that oversight may have failed. Former vice-president Dick Cheney apparently ordered the CIA to keep secret from the U.S. Congress a program they established.

The nature of this program remains highly speculative. The Times article says the program did not involve interrogation or domestic activities.

However, the Wall Street Journal cites a former CIA official that it was a kill-or-capture program aimed at senior Al-Qaeda leaders that never got off the ground. In the early days, it may have discussed a targeted assassination program as an alternative to using missile attacks.

The Manchester Guardian says definitively that it was as assassination program and the program was illegal as it would have operated in friendly countries without informing their governments of the activities underway.

And a recent expose says the CIA hired Blackwater, the shifty mercenary security firm, to undertake the assassination program.

But no who really knows what was going on is talking. The CIA is obviously not planning on holding a press conference and the handful of Congressional leaders and Intelligence Committee members who have now been briefed are bound by confidentiality.

If and when the truth comes out, the underlying problem is one of authority.

These are not the days of Depression-era America, where billions will be spent on covert action because a president asks.

Intelligence services fall under extreme scrutiny because their operation must always be in the national interest, and never subsumed to any other personal, political or partisan interest. Robust disclosure mechanisms ensure that programs aimed at foreign threats do not get used against domestic challengers.

Congressional oversight was forced on the CIA in the 1970s.

In the paranoid era of Watergate, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the CIA "family jewels" that included assassination programs aimed at foreign leaders, domestic political activity against anti-war groups and other "dissidents," surveillance of journalists who were critical of the Nixon administration, and even absurdities like spying on former Beatle John Lennon.

Following these disclosures, the intelligence committees of both the Senate and the House were formed and - after a period of intrusive turf wars - settled into a focused and cooperative relationship with the intelligence community.

Rules were established around how domestic surveillance would be accommodated and covering the interaction of the courts and the intelligence community. It was made a crime to reveal the identity of an intelligence professional.

More critically, the purse strings were tightened.

Congress cut of funding to UNITA rebels in Angola, because the funding was counter to American values. A reader of " Charlie Wilson's War" can see how a single Congressional representative can influence intelligence policy through approval of budgets, following the Golden Rule that "he who has the gold, makes the rules."

This relationship was sorely tested at times, particularly in the Iran-Contra scandal, which was all about using Iranian cash to fund Contra rebels illegally, after Congress had cut off authorization of the CIA to fund the insurgents.

But the precedent was in place that the executive could not conduct intelligence operations alone and without review and approval by legislative oversight. It is the betrayal of this principal that is at the heart of the looming scandal in the United States, one that threatens to see a former vice-president on the stand answering questions about criminal abuses of power.

Here in Canada, the same attitude of distrust toward the intelligence community was ignited by revelations that the RCMP, then operating as an intelligence agency as well as a police agency, had engaged in absurd illegal activities like stealing membership lists from the Parti Québécois and burning a barn where members of the Black Panthers and FLQ were rumoured to be planning a meeting.

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