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Ray McGovern: Hearing exposes how little oversight the Senate Intelligence Committee exercises over the CIA

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In Washington on Thursday, John Brennan testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now joining us to talk about his testimony is Ray McGovern. Ray was a CIA analyst for 27 years, prepared the president’s daily briefing between ’81 and ’85. And he now joins us from Washington.

Thanks for joining us again, Ray.


JAY: So what jumped out at you from your watching of the hearing?

MCGOVERN: Well, there was the normal posturing by the senators. But what came through loud and clear for anyone who knows the Washington scene was how feckless the oversight function by the Congress is, oversight over CIA. It was quite remarkable. You know, it reminded me of his expression, after 9/11 everything changed. Well, among the things that changed was the fact that the oversight committees became the overlook committees, everyone just petrified of crossing the CIA.

For example, Jay Rockefeller, part of the 1 percent if anybody is, is afraid of his own shadow. He recounted—he and Pat Roberts from Kansas, who was chair of that Senate Intelligence Committee when they were being deceived by weapons of mass destruction and the rest of it, he said, you know, we’ve got these briefings, only the two of us, ranking member me and Pat Roberts, the chair, and, you know, it was so secret that when we went back in the car, we couldn’t talk to each other about it. Well, hello, I mean, who says? Who’s running this whole operation?

JAY: And who tells them they can’t talk to each other?

MCGOVERN: Well, the CIA said it’s secret. That’s enough for them. You know, it came through so loud and clear.

And Rockefeller, you know, after saying, well, okay, the EITs—that’s what we call them now, the enhanced interrogation techniques—the EITs were a disaster, he says. But now, how about the drones now? Is it true that only the president can authorize the drone killings of American citizens and others? Well, hello, what kind of question is—only the president—can the president authorize—under the Fifth Amendment, which says no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process, is the president authorized? And this Jay Rockefeller, you know, is a lawyer, and he was deputy head of the committee.

You know, what I remember is when the yellowcake became a forgery—remember the yellowcake, the uranium that Iraq was getting from deepest Africa? When that was proved to be a forgery, Jay Rockefeller went up to Pat Roberts and he said, you know, I think we ought to get the FBI on this, because, you know, this—. And Roberts says, no, no, that would be inappropriate. And Rockefeller: no, no, this is appropriate. And Pat Roberts said, no, it’s inappropriate. So Rockefeller wrote his own little letter, okay, and he sent it up to the head of the FBI, and the FBI said, well, you know, if it’s not from the chair of the committee, we disregard it.

JAY: Well, isn’t one thing that’s—came clear out of the hearing is that the only power this committee thinks they have over the CIA or the administration is the power of the purse to withdraw funding, and they won’t use that power? Everyone knows they won’t use that power. So in the hearing on Thursday they were complaining about how the CIA didn’t brief them. One of the senators says, we had been jerked around by every head of the CIA for the last decade. But of course they’re jerked around, because one, they won’t use the power of the purse, and number two, they won’t go public with the fact that there’s no accountability to them.

MCGOVERN: Well, they can’t, Paul. It’s secret. It’s secret because the CIA says it’s secret.

Now, not only the Senators are jerked around, not only Congress as a whole, but Brennan admits to having been jerked around. They asked him, you know, you said that there was great information, you said that the information from these enhanced interrogation techniques saved lives. Why did you say that in 2007? And Brennan says, oh, well, that’s what they told me. And now that I’ve read the Senate Intelligence Committee report, 6,000 pages, I read part of it, and I can see, wow, I’m so ashamed and I’m so shocked that apparently they told me wrong.

JAY: Yeah, that there was no [incompr.] I think this report that the Senate committee did, as much as we’re kind of giving them hell for not doing real oversight, one thing they did do was they took things in their own hands, they did this big report, and apparently, if by implication, ’cause they won’t make it public, it’s quite devastating in its critique of how the CIA used rendition and torture. But if they don’t let it go public, then it can just be ignored. I mean, all Brennan agreed to do was read it, and they almost had to push him to get there.

MCGOVERN: Well, Paul, you don’t understand. They can’t make it public, because Brennan’s in it. Brennan’s implicated. I have that from a very good source that Brennan was, as one of the—Saxby said, chapter and verse, he was in on the planning, the execution of all this kind of stuff. So how can they make it public? Brennan’s going to be really interested in reading it.

You know, the whole thing is a charade.

JAY: Well, Ray, it wouldn’t be just Brennan. It would be any number of still-active CIA employees and retired employees, because that leads to another thing that Brennan wouldn’t take a position on. Senator Levin says to him: is waterboarding torture? And he wouldn’t answer it.

MCGOVERN: Yeah. Well, he doesn’t want to—yeah, he danced around that. It was really interesting that he couldn’t simply say, the attorney general, the president, both have said waterboarding is torture, and so I agree. He wouldn’t say that, you know, partly because he was in on it, chapter and verse, as Senator Saxby claimed.

So Brennan is dancing around all this stuff, and he’s saying, well, you know, they told me wrong. But he was in on—he was the deputy executive director under Tenet when this was going on, and then he became head of the counterterrorism stuff. So, you know, it was incredibly disingenuous.

Rockefeller was really interesting. You know, after he dismissed the EITs and said, that was a disaster, EITs being torture, okay, he said, now, tell me, Mr. President, is it true that only the president can authorize assassinations like he’s—claims the ability to—. Well, hello, Rockefeller’s a lawyer. The issue is not whether only the president can order people assassinated, including American—the issue is whether the president can without due process, as the Fifth Amendment requires, and without the congressional involvement.

So, you know, these guys are—they’re feckless. And let’s face it: this was posturing today. Nothing’s going to come of it. Brennan will be approved. And Ron Wyden, who to his great credit insisted on getting the juridical, quote, “justification,” end quote, for the drone strikes against American citizens, he won’t be given anything once the hearings are over and once Brennan is approved.

JAY: Well, now, they said several times and several members of the committee said, we’re not going to do the—confirm your nomination unless we get the legal documents. And just for people that haven’t followed this piece of the story, what it is is that apparently just the night before the hearing, the Obama administration sent the legal basis for, we assume, the drone killings. In other words, it’s been going on for four years, and this committee has yet to see that legal basis. But it just came, and they haven’t had time to go through it, and they say they don’t actually think all the documents are really there. But they said several times they won’t confirm without them. So I guess we’ll have to see if they actually mean it.

MCGOVERN: Well, not only that, but their staffers are not authorized to see them. And if you know how Congress works, it’s the staffers that do the work. Susan Collins said she spent several hours today reading it. It arrived this morning. You know, that’s such an indignity, that’s such an abuse.

If I were Diane Feinstein, I would have recessed the committee hearing, said, we’re going to do it in three weeks after we’ve had time to read this 100-page or whatever it is document. It’s key to the Constitution as to whether the president can order American citizens killed. He cannot. And for them to just say, well, could you please promise to give us—. They’ll give him some paper, but it won’t be revelatory, and it won’t be any better than the torture memos, which were released in 2004, and which showed these mafia lawyers justifying torture.

JAY: And tell me, what is the rationale how the legal argument that would justify what everyone knows is happening, how can that be secret? I don’t understand the logic of that.

MCGOVERN: Well, it’s secret because it’s so far-fetched it does not bear close scrutiny. It’s like the torture memos. Torture was defined in a certain way to allow people to torture. The legal authority for assassinations will be defined in such a way to allow the president to assassinate people, including you and me, Paul, American citizens.

JAY: Yeah, I know. It was clear in the hearing it included within the United States.

MCGOVERN: Yeah. So, you know, what we have, I guess, is a thoroughly corrupted, not only intelligence setup, but a thoroughly corrupted Department of Justice. I mean, the Office of Legal Counsel is what the government depends upon to authorize or make legal their actions, and the Office of Legal Counsel has approved not only torture, but now the assassination of American citizens. Give me a break. The whole system is—.

JAY: And I think we should add that why shouldn’t there be some kind of due process for non-American citizens. I mean, it keeps being all about American citizens. But how about the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people that have already been killed without any due process? Even if you accept that the targets were actually legitimate, we know there’s hundreds and perhaps more of what—quote-unquote “collateral damage”.

MCGOVERN: That’s right, Paul. And, you know, if you read the Fifth Amendment to our constitution, which I’m sworn to protect like millions of other Americans, it says no person, okay—not no American—it says no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Now, my lawyer friends tell me that that “no person” was very deliberate. They could have said no Americans, right? No citizen, they could have said. “No person”—that shows a certain regard on the part of our framers to say, well, other people are human too, even people that wear funny things on top of their head, even people whose skin is darker than ours.

So, you know, yeah, you’re quite right. These things, assassinating other people, now low-level people, as was brought out at the hearing, and even General McChrystal saying this is just making people really, really angry—.

You know what was interesting? John Brennan, when he’s talking about Yemen, he says, you know, the Yemen strikes have been very successful, but quite unfortunately—this is a direct quote—quite unfortunately, there has been a great growth of terrorism in Yemen. Well, the last three years since we have been drone-bombing the heck out of that country, the al-Qaeda element has gone from between 200 and 300 people to well over 1,000. So is Brennan unable to put the arithmetic together and realize that these kinds of actions are creating more terrorists? Does he want more terrorists so that the military-industrial complex can have a growth industry? Or is he really dumb? I just don’t know the answer to that.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Ray.

MCGOVERN: You’re welcome.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Ray McGovern is a retired CIA officer and was employed under seven US presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.