With both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees winding up their year-long investigation of the "abuses" U.S. intelligence agencies without having completed several key investigations informed sources in Washington and elsewhere are publicly voicing their fears that the CIA and other agencies may, incredibly, emerge the winners -- and the American public, the losers -- once the dust clears.
"Our feeling here is that the opportunity has been lost," says John Frazen, a legislative aide to Representative Michael Harrington of Massachusettes, "and won't come again for quite some time.
"What we are worried about is that after this year of investigation, we may come out of it worse than we began. The Committees may know how the covert process works, but the public doesn't. We may end up with secret reforms of a secret agency.
"Committees in both houses have operated in too much secrecy," charges Franzen. "We haven't had the kind of public discussion that we had, say, with Senator Ervin's Watergate hearings. We see them already putting things back in the shadows, holding secret meetings to discuss executive orders to reform the agencies." Executive orders can be kept secret -- the one that established the National Security Agency still hasn't been made public. We may come up with a British-style Official Secrets Act, where all this activity will be codified and acknowledged -- with direct sanction from Congress, where none existed before.
Harrington's office, which has called in vain for a Special Prosecutor to continue the inquiry, has been unhappy for some time with the performance of the Committees. "On the most important question of all, which is, should we conduct covert actions at all?" Franzen continues, "the House deferred to the Senate, which went off into the flashy aspects -- the assassination plots, dart guns, shellfish toxins -- while neglecting the more basic issues.
"The Church Committee spent one afternoon on Chile, probably the most important single action, without calling high administration officials. They spent one morning on the general issue of covert action."
What may emerge from the Committee's recommendations, such critics fear, is the partial vindication of past CIA covert actions -- to the degree that most were approved or ordered by Presidents -- and a newly legitimized CIA which, despite having its activity codified, will in fact be less accountable to Congress and less amenable to outside controls. There is considerable doubt that the Committees will recommend an end to all covert actions as such, leaving the door open for further disruptive international adventures of the kind the agency has implemented in Chile, Portugal, Angola, and countless other nations.