Americans hardly agree on anything these days, but at a baseline, we all agree that government should be looking out for our national security. Congress in particular has a critical responsibility to provide oversight over the defense and intelligence communities.
In nearly every era of American history, save the Senate McCarthy hearings, this oversight has been done in a sober and bipartisan fashion. Politicians, love them or hate them, are largely patriots whose sworn duty it is to uphold the Constitution, and it is their sacred duty to protect the nation.
Thankfully, the Senate Intelligence Committee leadership seems to understand this, but the House Intelligence Committee needs help, so here’s a suggestion. Speaker Paul Ryan should take off his “leader of the Republican Party hat” on intelligence oversight, and put on his “leader of the House hat,” sit down with the House Intelligence Committee and get the members to act like adults.
He needs to explain to them that country and the institution come first if you want to serve on this committee. I know this can be difficult for any leader in these times of unbelievable partisan distrust and conflict, but he owes it to the Congress, and the American people, to cajole the House Intelligence Committee to get its act together, for the sake of our country and our national security.
Instead, we have seen toxic partisanship finally erode this fundamental responsibility. Dueling memos, started by the release of the Nunes memo, have seemingly put political loyalty to President Donald Trump over sworn duty. Congress has derailed.
What is the purpose of the committees tasked with overseeing the intelligence functions of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA? To provide independent, nonpartisan oversight over law enforcement and intelligence communities. It’s that simple. They should be focusing on the truth, period. Not one Republican or Democrat should be carrying out personal or political agendas for anyone.
What’s lost by this charade? The further incapacitation of Congress to serve its critical role as the eyes and ears of all Americans over the activities of the federal government, the independence of the entire congressional oversight process, and the credibility of the members of Congress and all elected officials. And this devolution is backlit by a President who continues to intervene in law enforcement and congressional review of intelligence and challenges the basic principles of the rule of law.
While this continues, the American people suffer. Their trust in some of the most important institutions is being challenged, because the President and those members of Congress who seem to put party above the needs of the American public are acting in a manner befitting a tawdry reality television series — not the respectable, rational and bipartisan running of the United States government.
The national security of our country is at stake, and our allies and especially our adversaries will begin to believe that we are weak and incapable of getting past partisan squabbles and making reasonable assessments of factual evidence.
There are complex and difficult public policy challenges to take on beyond the Russia investigation. For example, House Intelligence Committees must consider the implications of the FISA process on civil liberties and national security.
Certainly, in my days as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, we almost always worked collaboratively across party lines and tried to avoid any public partisan disagreements. This was particularly true of the relationship between me and the ranking member of the committee.
Most of the time, there was total respect for the secrecy of sources and methods to gather intelligence, which is absolutely necessary for the success of these agencies and the preservation of our national security. That was important because we knew that law enforcement and intelligence officers didn’t always get it right.
Once, there was a time when Congress understood that public spats would jeopardize its ability to be neutral and fair observers. Being viewed as a credible arbiter on behalf of the American public is what Congress is designed to do, and members, particularly in the House Intelligence Committee, should remember that.