Posted by Bob Braun/NJ Star-Ledger Columnist
July 15, 2009
The New Jersey lawmaker at the center of a controversy on whether the CIA lied to Congress says he believes support is growing for a "comprehensive" investigation into intelligence-gathering practices.
"I think there has been a significant shift in the mood in both Congress and in the general public," said U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. "It's been a distinct change."
Holt said he believes the investigation, which he also called a review, should be as intense and comprehensive as the probe conducted more than 30 years ago -- in the wake of the Watergate scandal -- by a special committee headed by U.S. Sen. Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat.
The Church committee's findings shocked the public and lawmakers with revelations about attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, undermining of foreign governments, domestic spying, and other abuses.
"I think any new investigation will produce revelations that are as jaw-dropping as those that were uncovered by the Church committee," said Holt in an interview. Holt said his push for a review of intelligence gathering predates the controversy that erupted on Capitol Hill two months ago when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to Congress.
"They mislead us all the time," Pelosi told a May 14 news conference.
Her comments ignited a storm of criticism from Republicans who accused her of weakening American intelligence committee. It got worse when Leon Panetta, the new CIA chief, defended his agency's truthfulness.
Holt, a staunch Pelosi ally, ignored Obama administration wishes to drop the argument and change the subject. He renewed his longstanding call for an investigation into intelligence practices and defended the Speaker.
Then, last week, he and six other members of the House Intelligence Committee released the contents of a letter they had sent to Panetta suggesting Pelosi was right and that he should, in effect, changed what he said about the CIA in response to Pelosi's allegations.
Holt released the letter after Panetta failed to respond.
"He still hasn't responded," Holt said.
The New Jersey congressman has now become a target of attacks from Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who, in a column, said he acted "to create a political sideshow to defend Pelosi." He also accused the Democrats who released the letter of "weakening" the intelligence community.
Holt dismissed the charges and contended his demands for a review of intelligence gathering go "far beyond" the argument between Pelosi and Panetta.
"We need to review all aspects of the relationship between intelligence gathering and American citizens," said Holt.
He said he wanted to include in the investigation such issues as domestic surveillance, covert actions, rendition of detainees and their transfer to nations that practice torture, torture done by American agents.
"The intelligence community has been acting for years in an unexamined fashion," said Holt., who added that, also for a long while, "the public was saying that whatever the community does is just fine."
"So the intelligence-gathering services began to act in ways that were self-confirming and self-congratulatory and, by my way of thinking, that is dangerous."
Holt said the Church committee's findings, many of which remain classified, had helped stop abuses by spy agencies, "but the recommendations of that committee have eroded and they have been violated and ignored."
The controversy has led to published reports that the CIA had briefly pursued a program aimed at assassinating al Qaeda leaders and that former Vice President Richard Cheney asked the agency to keep Congress from learning about it. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has suggested he might pursue an investigation of the former administration's use of torture.
"What you're seeing is the development of a pattern of behavior on the part of these agencies," said Holt. "A pattern that created serious problems for us."
The behavior of the spy agencies, he said, prevented his committee from exercising "proper oversight" -- and extensive Congressional oversight was one of the key recommendations of the Church investigation.
"The elected representatives of the people cannot do their job if we are not hearing the truth from the intelligence community," Holt said.