Attorney General Eric Holder has tightened his grip on our intelligence agencies, requiring them to get Justice Department permission to release classified information to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, according to Senate sources.
Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo), Ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and three Senate staffers working for other members have recently asked the Director of National Intelligence for information on the interrogation of the failed Times Square bomber, Faisal Shazad. (Some of questions may have been directed at other intelligence matters as well.)
All four were told the information will not be provided until the Justice Department approved the transaction.
The National Security Act (50 USC Sec 413 and 413(a)) requires the Director of National Intelligence and all intelligence agencies to keep the House and Senate Intelligence Committees "fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities" other than covert operations and furnish those committees any information regarding the intelligence agencies' activities which the congressional committees request.
The Attorney General has no role in that process. But Eric Holder has - with the president's support -seized control of that and other intelligence agency functions.
Last week, the accumulated distrust of Holder erupted in a bipartisan backlash. The immediate cause was the Shazad case and his blockade of information about the newly-formed "High Value Detainee Interrogation Group."
Quickly after his inauguration, President Obama banned the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used to great effect during the Bush administration to interrogate al-Qaeda bigs. (About the use of those techniques, former CIA Director George Tenet wrote, "What [the terrorist detainees] gave us was worth more than the CIA, NSA, the FBI and our military operations had achieved collectively.")
Under criticism for doing away with that valuable source of intelligence, last August Obama authorized the formation of the HIG which the administration assured would produce the same quality and quantity of intelligence information as EITs.
But when the Christmas Day underwear bomber's attack failed, it was revealed that the HIG - though promised -- hadn't been created. Now, according to press reports, the HIG is in operation and has some undefined role in questioning Faisal Shazad, the failed Times Square bomber.
But when members and staff of the SSCI asked for details about what the HIG's mission and general makeup were, they were told that Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, couldn't release the information without Holder's approval. That approval wasn't forthcoming.
As a result, last week the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill that requires the Director of National Intelligence to provide the House and Senate Intelligence Committees with the charter and operational procedures of the HIG within thirty days of its formation. The amendment, sources told me, passed the Appropriations committee on a bipartisan voice vote.
Though the terms of the amendment seem bland, the fact that it pushes Holder back out of the loop and that it was passed with support of Democrats combine to make it a vote of no confidence in Holder and a signal to Obama that distrust of Holder is growing.
Holder's reputation among the Intelligence Committees' Republican members sank from dubious to downright awful in one short year. In pre-confirmation hearing meetings with senators on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, several sought Holder's assurance that he wouldn't investigate or prosecute the CIA interrogators who had used the "enhanced interrogation techniques." As two senators told me - one on each of those committees - Holder promised them directly that there would be no such investigations or prosecutions.
Soon after Holder was confirmed, he and the president moved the supervision of detainee interrogation out of the intelligence agencies and into the White House. That move told the CIA -- and probably foreign intelligence agencies as well -- that the White House didn't trust the spy agency to run terrorist interrogations.
Holder broke the promise on investigating CIA interrogators last August when he announced the appointment of special prosecutor to conduct a preliminary inquiry into allegations of CIA abuse of detainees during interrogation.
According to an ABC News report, that announcement came the morning after a "profanity-laced screaming match" at the White House involving Holder, CIA Director Leon Panetta and a highly-placed White House staffer. Panetta was in the midst of a months-long defense of the CIA against from Speaker Pelosi's accusations that the spy agency was lying to Congress about what and when it had briefed her on waterboarding of terrorist detainees. Fearing that the investigation would further damage CIA morale - and lead interrogators to excessive caution - Panetta fought against the Holder investigation and lost.
The White House supported Holder then, and continues to do so now. By defeating Panetta in August and Blair now, Holder has established de facto control over the intelligence community.
Holder is Obama's point man on the most controversial aspects of the president's anti-terror agenda. He's responsible for the decision to "Mirandize" terrorists and trying to move the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed from Guantanamo Bay to Manhattan. By helping him stonewall Congress on critical matters of intelligence oversight, Obama is expanding Holder's authority in a manner most likely to cause legislative retribution aimed directly at reining in the AG.