WASHINGTON -- In 2006, with the Bush administration resisting efforts by Congress to look into the execution of its global war on terror, the Center for American Progress published a thorough document outlining the role of transparency in democracy.
“Previous Senate and House Members of the intelligence committees were notably different from their successors today," the report lamented. "They were more interested in performing their oversight function responsibly than in protecting the executive branch when a committee member was of the same party."
The paper's lead author: Denis McDonough.
Today, it's McDonough, the White House chief of staff, who is protecting the executive branch from Senate Democrats fighting to perform their oversight function.
But in 2006, Center for American Progress fellow McDonough was deeply unsatisfied with the state of intelligence oversight in the U.S. Congress. It’s “completely lacking” and soft, he wrote in his report on the subject, and the committees are far too deferential to the executive branch.
“The historically collegial and cooperative Senate Intelligence Committee has been overtaken by partisanship, with the Committee majority completely abdicating to the executive on matters of oversight,” he wrote.
Obama’s chief has taken a surprisingly hands-on role in combating the Intelligence Committee's efforts to declassify as much of the committee’s report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program as possible. The negotiations have been stalled by refusals on behalf of the White House and agency to declassify information the panel insists should be made public.
Originally drawn into the declassification negotiations at the committee’s request, the White House and McDonough have mired the public release of the report’s 500-page executive summary in a protracted battle over redactions.
The negotiations have now stretched more than six months since the panel first voted to declassify the document, dashing hopes that the White House’s involvement would mean more transparency into the Bush-era program.
Instead, with McDonough leading the process, Pennsylvania Avenue has aligned itself largely in defense of its spy agency, pitting itself in a battle over congressional oversight. But in 2006, that was a battle McDonough chastised the intelligence committees for failing to fight.
“The record is rife with evidence that congressional oversight is completely lacking today,” he wrote in his Center for American Progress report. Intelligence Committees of old, he said, found true importance in challenging their powerful administrations. “At its core, this shared vision was more about the importance of the balancing role of the legislative branch as coequal to the executive branch. Such a vision is sorely lacking today.”
Despite the White House’s current role as facilitator in the dispute over the panel’s CIA report, in 2006 McDonough hailed congressional intelligence oversight as “critical” and warned that its collapse would not bode well for the nation.
“Congressional oversight of intelligence is even more critical than it is for those areas that are more easily accessible to the general public,” he wrote. “This breakdown should be a source of great concern as it threatens to further weaken the intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate just when outside observers are calling for more effective oversight mechanisms.”
The White House declined to comment on the 2006 report.
Some lawmakers say the large swaths of redactions to the congressional report will prevent a full public accounting of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, in which suspected terrorists were shipped to overseas secret prisons and subjected to techniques such as waterboarding.
"Much of intelligence agency work takes place under the shroud of extreme secrecy. Congressional overseers -- members and staff alike -- do not know what they do not know," 2006 McDonough warned.
His previous words may serve as encouragement to the lawmakers he’s now stacked against.
“The McDonough of 2006 has a message for the Senate Intelligence Committee of today: Don't give up, don't abdicate -- fight for what you believe to be right. That's the only way to fulfill your responsibilities,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, which works to increase government transparency on national security issues.
Indeed, McDonough’s 2006 assertions found support from the Intelligence committee members who have balked at the White House’s obfuscation.
“Sen. Wyden agrees that that strong oversight of intelligence programs is vital in a democratic government. Effective oversight requires intelligence agency leaders to be straightforward and truthful, and not mired in a culture of misinformation,” said Keith Chu, Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) press secretary.
Wyden, for one, has pulled no punches in castigating the executive branch for its attempts to black substantial information out of the public version of the report’s executive summary.
“This report should’ve been out a long time ago. I tried to make that clear. We’ve been at this for months and months, and we’ve gone through ludicrous redactions,” he told HuffPost last week. “What this is really all about is trying to bury as many key facts as possible in order to prevent the real accounting.”
Negotiations over the report’s public release are still ongoing.