Tag Archives: Government secrecy

The Church Committee – Dusting Off One Option for Overhaul of Oversight

“It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.”Henry Kissinger

Former Senators Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Gary Hart (D-CO) hope they can buck that trend. During this past week the two former Senators have taken a lead in speaking out on an issue that has reached front burner status for many organizations and individuals. The issue is a call for reestablishment of a new “Church Committee,” a hallmark in the history of open government initiatives, now honored forty years after its work.

Chaired by late Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Vice-Chair John Tower (R-TX) the select investigative committee was charged with conducting a “thorough, bipartisan examination” of our government’s secret intelligence operations undertaken over the course of several presidential administrations.” During nine months of hearings the committee, formally titled the “United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities” (the “Church Committee nickname is obvious….) interviewed over 800 officials, held 250 executive and 21 public hearings. Their goal was to probe widespread intelligence abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. Bottom line, the Church Committee concluded that every administration, beginning with FDR and continuing through Nixon, had abused its secret powers. (http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/churchcommittee.html)

The most visible result of the Church Committee was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), source of the secret FISA court of recent headline fame. The other visible result is creation of the powerful intelligence committees in the House and Senate.   Both entities have warranted widespread criticism from a host of critics. Further, in the wake of 9-11, Congress passed new laws that greatly expanded the reach of intelligence agencies and limited Congressional – thus public – oversight of the federal agencies. In sum, many believe that this has led to overreach and abuse of surveillance programs.

Bill Moyers’ 2007 retrospective on the work of the Committee offers a good review of the findings and implications of the work of the Church Committee. (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10262007/profile2.html)

In light of perceived overreach, as well as massive changes in technology and diminished oversight, there is increasing call for establishment of a 21st Century Church Committee.”  The issues has been boiling over for nearly a year since Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on the committee…. The composition of the 114th Congress presents new challenges to the concerned public.

Given their experience and history Senator Walter Mondale and his colleague, Senator Gary Hart, are speaking out. The former Senators have written the foreword to a report issued by seventeen former staff members of the Church Committee who have gathered their thoughts to produce a report calling for a comprehensive re-evaluation of this nation’s systems of intelligence oversight. (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/strengthening-intelligence-oversight) Briefly, the Senators conclude that “much of the error and abuse we found resulted from excessive secrecy that forfeited the strengths of our constitutional system: the value added by the input of informed overseers in Congress and the courts, and the pubic support earned through democratic accountability.”

The Senators add that “today, intelligence activities are back in the news, too often for the wrong reasons. Many Americans are questioning whether the structural reforms developed as a result of the Church Committee investigation remain sufficient to ensure intelligence activities are properly tailored to meet their objectives without infringing on individual rights or betraying American values.”

The recommendations for Congressional action identified by the veteran staffers are these:

  • Assessing whether Congress has the appropriate resources to maintain effective oversight of intelligence activities.
  • Examining whether committees are able to get the information necessary to properly guide intelligence activities and inform the rest of Congress and the public
  • Modifying the FISA process to make it more transparent and accountable.
  • Reassessing the government’s aggressive foreign intelligence surveillance practices, which jeopardize the United States’ role as a leader in promoting human rights and democracy in the international community.
  • Adopting measures to reduce over-classification, which squanders intelligence resources, impedes information sharing denies the public access to information it can use to better understand threats, and promotes leaks by eroding respect for the classification system. [Summarized by Brennan Center for Justice, 1-27-15]

Granted, the inner workings and the intelligence community are overload for most Americans.  Still, Senator Mondale stays in touch with the things that probably should matter to his Minnesota neighbors. His call to attention is no doubt worth a listen.

 

 

 

 

Secrecy Shrouds Trade Talks – Food Policy, Information Issues on the Table

Oats peas beans and barley grow, Oats peas beans and barley grow

Do you or I or anyone know, how oats peas beans and barley grow?

The toddler’s refrain hums in the interstices of my mind as I try to wrap my head around the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) on in progress.  Other regional trade talks, particularly Doha, have piqued my proclivity for perceptive paranoia.  Now, I am focused on two pivotal issues relating to TAFTA.

In a word, I am appalled at 1) the influence of corporate interests on the talks, and 2) equally, at the impenetrable cone of silence that encapsulates the process.   Because international trade agreements seem arcane, remote, irrelevant chats among trusted elite, the vast majority of us are easily duped; in fact, we quietly choose to opt out – we lack the time or interest to keep up.  This in spite of the fact that TAFTA agreements will regulate all U.S. and EU trade and 30% of world trade in goods.

Concerns about the food issues are seminal; talks could formalize low standards for years to come.  Those standards relate to food safety, GMO’s, environmental impact, workers’ rights, packaging, procurement politics, labeling, and other details in which the well-paid devil has his way.  Though consumers do care deeply about such implicit concerns we don’t connect the dinner table reality with the endless chain of regulations over which the clandestine negotiators hold sway.

Furthermore, there are two information threats inherent in the TAFTA talks.  One is the issue of public access to information about what’s going on.  Pre-TAFTA talks have all been held in secret, as have parallel deliberations of other regional trade negotiations. The deciders are enthusiastic about the option to “fast track” the talks, in large part to stem any tide of interest or press coverage.  The second information issue waiting in the wings is core, the potential inclusion of copyright, patent and trademark issues in the talks – the subject of future coverage as the story unfolds

In a powerful protest to the chilling effect of secrecy on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem, MA) wrote, “Trade agreements are important. They affect everything. – our imports and exports, wages, jobs, the environment, financial services, and even the Internet.  But if people can’t follow the basic outline of the negotiations, then they can’t have any real input into the process. I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant.  In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it.  This argument is exactly backwards.  If transparency would lead to widespread public opportunity to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States. “  (Letter to Michael Froman, then nominee now U.S. Trade Representative appointed by President Obama)

Similarly, voices from the other side of the pond have been raised.  Natacha Cingotti, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, has written that ”the negotiations must be opened up for public scrutiny.  It is unacceptable that the deal is being negotiated behind closed doors, without timely and full access to the draft documents long the process, and consultation with civil society – all the more since US business groups have access to negotiation texts.”

Officially, TAFTA talks began July 8 in DC.  In fact, corporate leaders and government officials from the U.S. and the European Union have been meeting and have already identified issues deemed to be “trade irritants, “ public interests such as the environment, health concerns, worker rights, small farm concerns, consumer rights and other impediments to trade.  Karen Hansen-Kuhn of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy at the University of Minnesota is one of the vocal critics of the process.  “We should be raising standards to protect our health and the environment and improve our food system, not lowering them.  Perhaps if so much of the negotiations weren’t being held in secret, these issues would hold more weight.” Kuhn-Hansen’s words are included in a letter written to trade representatives by a broad-based network of organizations representing a range of public interests.

There is precedent for public concern that reflects the words of Senator Warren.  Writing in Guardian UK Joseph Siglitz cites the history of the Doha talks as an example of what goes wrong behind closed doors.  Given this recent history, he writes, it now seems clear that the negotiations to create a free trade area between the U.S. and Europe, and another between the U.S. and much of the Pacific (except for China) are not about establishing a true free trade system.  Instead, the goal is a managed trade regime – managed, that is, to serve the special interests that have long dominated trade policy in the west.”

So, though I have no idea how oats peas beans and barley grow, I do know that everyone has a right to these and to a full plate of wholesome food essential to life;  I also know that, absent transparency, the rights and interests of the public never make it to the table, no matter the venue. Concerned citizens must demand that the talks be open.  In this era of reduced investigative journalism, we must support a free press that will cover, report and interpret the negotiations from a position that is both informed and fair-handed.