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Subject:      Congressional oversight of NRO
From:         thomsona@netcom.com (Allen Thomson)
Date:         1995/08/28
Message-Id:   <thomsonaDE1KzG.AzG@netcom.com>
Newsgroups:   sci.space.policy,alt.politics.org.cia

   The recent discussion here and in e-mail about the degree to which 
the NRO does or does not have adequate congressional oversight prompted 
me to reread the transcript* of the Senate Select Committee on 
Intelligence (SSCI) hearing concerning the miniflap over NRO's new 
headquarters at Westfields near Dulles airport.  Several of the comments 
of the senators, all serving members of the committee, are apposite; 
I've made some comments which are enclosed in curly {brackets}. 
Sen. DeConcini, Chairman
    ... The price tag of this headquarter complex is about $350 million. 
  And the minimal -- and I emphasize minimal -- notification to this 
  Committee by the NRO has outraged this member.
     But to present to you what complaints, if any we had, in the spirit
  of good will that you [Roger Marsh, Director of NRO Management 
  Services] mention here and that you mention, Mr. Hill [DD/NRO] and 
  Mr. Harris [D/NRO] that you want a better relationship. So do we [the 
  SSCI]. But it is no secret to anybody that I think the relationship is 
  pretty lousy. 
Sen. Warner, Vice-Chairman 
    We simply do not have, nor should we have, the institutional 
  infrastructure in the Congress to go over every single item in the 
  detail that is necessary.  It is incumbent upon the Executive branch to 
  be forthcoming in providing those budget details.  We do not have, as I 
  said, the resources to conduct in-depth investigations on every item in 
  the budget.
    ...quite candidly, I do believe the shortcoming [in this affair] is on 
  the Executive branch side, some perhaps on the Congress, but certainly 
  on the Executive branch -- for not being more forthcoming in details.
    I mean we put it in Committee reports, our staff repeatedly asked 
  questions. And maybe if we asked them [NRO officials] particular 
  specific questions, the answer came, but not the broader picture to 
  enable the relatively small staffs in the Congress, compared to those 
  in Executive branch, to analyze in sufficient manner and perform our 
  responsibility to the satisfaction to the Members of this Committee, and 
  indeed the Senate as a whole.
      {This illustrates parts of the problem; the committee staffs are 
       relatively small, generally overworked, and frequently not 
       substantive experts.  If programs are hidden in other budget lines, 
       if questions always answered in the narrowest possible terms, then 
       it's going to be very difficult for the Congress to find out what's 
       going on.  On top of that, if staff access is effectively denied 
       for some "waived" programs, the situation becomes hopeless -- which 
       is the desired result.}
Sen. Metzenbaum 
(p.8 ff):
    ...this project is a good example of what happens when a government 
  does business in the dark. I think we need to understand how the culture 
  of secrecy eats away at people's common sense and warps even the most 
  sensible efforts...
      {Quite correct.  The walls around the "security enclave," to 
       use John Pike's term, are at least as effective in keeping reality 
       out as secrets in.  One of the frightening things one sees inside the
       black world is the degree to which presumably initially sane people
       come to accept the most bizarrely, ah, contrafactual, notions.}
    We in this committee were not allowed to say the NRO's name or even 
  the initials, even though the press knew about it and wrote about it. We 
  play the most stupid games in the intelligence area of probably any 
  governmental agency around...
    [The NRO has wonderful achievements, satellites and aircraft, to its
  credit, b]ut these benefits did not come without significant costs. One 
  cost was a cozy relationship between the NRO and a small group of major 
  contractors. At times the relationship has been abused. Some programs 
  have had truly horrendous cost overruns and have taken far too many 
  years. And my guess is that many of the cost overruns and many of the 
  expenditures are totally unknown to any Member of this Congress. Even 
  that was a secret from the Members of the Congress, and certainly from 
  the American people.
    Another cost has been the culture of secrecy, a belief that the best 
  way the NRO could serve the country was to minimize all outside 
  interference. That belief was rooted in the NRO's successes, but it also 
  reflects an arrogance and a close-mindedness that is, frankly, 
  detrimental to the national security...
    The NRO treated its new headquarters project the same way it treats 
  many a technical program. It took a father-knows-best attitude and gave 
  the Committees of Congress only the simplest information, and, in some 
  instance, no information. If we really wanted more information, it was 
  up to us to ask the right questions.
    ...we were not given all the facts, certainly not in a form that 
  would readily permit us to judge the wisdom of the NROs decision.
    ...we need to root out the obsession with secrecy that treats 
  legitimate overseers within the government as enemies rather than 
Sen. Baucus 
    After careful review, it seems to me that this investigation has 
  raised two important issues.
    One is extensive secrecy.  We, of course, must protect classified 
  information when it is critical to our national security.  We need to 
  protect sources and methods.  But there's a limit. Too much secrecy is 
  both foolish and harmful.  In this case, foolish because it could never 
  work. As the Chairman says, hiding a million square feet of office space 
  in the middle of a commercial complex in Northern Virginia is like 
  trying to hide an elephant on a football filed [sic]. And harmful 
  because it has apparently wasted huge amounts of taxpayers' money.
    And the other is a question of priorities. In an era of big deficits 
  and defense cutbacks -- the Vice Chairman was just addressing this 
  point-- we need to answer some serious questions. We need to cut 
  spending. At the same time, we need to made [sic] sure our armed 
  services. It is not an easy task to do both, and gold-plated pleasure 
  domes like the National Reconnaissance Office headquarters, do not help 
  us a bit. From now on, let us leave them in the world of poetic 
      {A rather insightful assessment which could be applied to 
       programs costing an order of magnitude more than Westfields
       by changing a few nouns.}
Sen. D'Amato 
    While the NRO has done much good for this nation, it is clear that it 
  has become too used to operating without scrutiny or strict oversight. 
  That must end...
    The public explanations offered so far for this extended disclosure
  process [concerning Westfields] show an abiding disregard for NRO's 
  responsibilities to be forthcoming with Congress and a dismissive 
  attitude toward the oversight process...
    Now, this Committee and the other committees with some oversight 
  responsibility over the NRO and its budget and appropriations bear some 
  responsibility for missing this problem. This is one of the risks that 
  comes from conducting business in secret.
      {Yes, and Congress should have realized this long ago and 
       exercised far greater diligence.}
    However, the Congressional oversight process is one that depends to a 
  certain degree on trust and candor -- more so where secret matters are 
  concerned than in other areas that are open to general public scrutiny. 
  I am amazed that the NRO so disregarded its responsibilities to the 
  American people and so lacked candor in its explanations and 
  presentations on the project. I am left to wonder what else they haven't
  told us....
      {If taken at face value, this shows shocking naivete in someone
       who has an obligation to know better. "Trust and candor" are just 
       what one _shouldn't_ expect in the Legislative-Executive
       relationship, especially where secret matters are concerned. If 
       the Committees have been expecting the black programs to be friendly 
       and forthcoming,  we're in deeper trouble than I thought.}
      {Well should the Senator have wondered about rocks not yet turned 
       over. One thing to remember is that during the 1980s secrecy was 
       emphasized, the leaders of defense and intelligence agencies had
       a barely-disguised contempt for Congress, and money flowed freely. 
       Such an environment was ideal for the flourishing of black mega-
       projects and hostile to review and scrutiny.}
    If the protections afforded to the NRO by secrecy based on national 
  security considerations are misused or abused, maybe there need to be 
  some adjustments.  
      {One adjustment would be to remove the "don't contact Congress" 
       features from security agreements and polygraph examinations.
       And eliminate waived programs, of course.} 
* NRO Headquarters Project
  Hearing before the Select Committee on 
  Intelligence of the United States Senate
  Wednesday, August 10, 1994
  S. HRG. 103-997
  ISBN 0-16-046870-1
  Available from 
  U.S. Government Printing Office
  Superintendent of Documents,
  Congressional Sales Office
  Washington, D.C. 20402

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