Go Ahead and Confirm Lake

GOP critics are wandering from their past stands against hamstringing the CIA

The impending hearings on the confirmation of Anthony Lake as director of central intelligence are viewed by congressional Republicans as an opportunity to skewer the nominee, and the Clinton administration, for remaining silent while Iran shipped arms to Bosnian Muslims.

Mr. Lake has been strongly criticized for the "excessive" secrecy surrounding this event, particularly in not informing Congress about the administration's decision to look the other way. How ironic it is that the Republican Party, which for the last 20 years admirably defended the principles and practices of executive secrecy in foreign policy, is now echoing the battle cry of such Democrats as Frank Church, Edward Boland, and Otis Pike.

With their takeover of Congress in 1994, congressional Republicans were positioned to reverse some of the more egregious restrictions on executive power instituted by a series of Democratic Congresses. Early in the 104th Congress, a half-hearted effort was made to repeal the War Powers Act, which ultimately failed when the leadership made it a low priority.

There was talk of undoing some of the Church and Iran-Contra Committee reforms, but this went nowhere, due in part to partisan concerns of what an unleashed Bill Clinton might do with this authority. Beyond passing the line-item veto, Republicans have demonstrated an unwillingness to repeal many of the restrictions on executive authority they so vigorously opposed during the Reagan-Bush years.

In no case is this more evident than in the Republican approach to the issue of congressional oversight of the intelligence community. No one would question that the health of the Central Intelligence Agency has declined dramatically in recent years, with the constant turnover of leadership at the agency, an indifferent president, the Ames and Nicholson spy cases, and allegations of abuses related to the agency's activities in Guatemala.

Unfortunately, the Republican response has been to tighten the congressional leash, further stifling the agency with new layers of bureaucracy. The core of the CIA's problem has been the repeated tendency of Congress to bog the agency down in a morass of restrictions, which has transformed it into the moral equivalent of a Department of Agriculture with PhDs. An agency that should be capable of moving with secrecy and dispatch, to borrow a phrase from Alexander Hamilton, has now become another sclerotic Washington bureaucracy. Republicans should be quick to appreciate this, but instead have furthered the process of bureaucratization that has crippled the agency.

A few examples of this destructive tendency will suffice. Late last year, despite the protests of CIA director John Deutch, the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1997 was passed, establishing three new assistant directors of the CIA and a new deputy director for community management, all subject to Senate confirmation. In addition, a statutory general counsel position was created, also subject to Senate confirmation.

According to one news account, requiring Senate confirmation of the general counsel was seen as a way to prevent undue political influence over this post, which is responsible for blocking illegal covert operations. Undue influence, of course, translates into undue executive influence, not legislative.

These reforms will serve to further bind the agency to the legislature, not to mention continue its descent into a bureaucratic labyrinth.

These actions came on the heels of another effort by Congress to neuter executive control of the agency. This concerned a congressionally mandated review of a ballistic missile threat analysis because the Republicans did not like the conclusions that were reached in the initial report. This report supported the Clinton administration's conclusion that there was a remote chance of a ballistic missile attack on the United States. Since this was seen as a politicized report it was deemed necessary to review it to achieve a more "appropriate" result.

In addition to these Republican-led legislative attacks on the agency and the executive branch, there is a growing lunacy on the right regarding the CIA. There is no shortage of left-wing groups who blame the CIA for murdering Elvis or launching the nation's crack epidemic, but now we are hearing similar tales from The American Spectator and conservative talk radio, particularly in regard to alleged drug running at Mena Airport in Arkansas.

This brings us back to Lake, who by demonstrating an ability to keep a secret has jeopardized his chances for becoming the nation's top spy. An apparent convert to the notion that secrecy has its place in the conduct of American foreign policy, Lake's nomination should be welcomed by congressional Republicans. The party should return to the principles that led it to defend some of the actions of our cold-war presidents from the naive, morally fastidious nonsense that propelled the late Senator Church and others.

The Senate should confirm Lake and take additional steps to reinvigorate the principle of executive control of the secret instruments of foreign policy.

* Stephen Knott, associate professor of political science at the US Air Force Academy, is the author of "Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency" (Oxford University Press). The views expressed here are his own.

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