Center for American Progress

Classified: Ensuring Congressional Access to National Security Information

Classified: Ensuring Congressional Access to National Security Information

Rep. Jane Harman discusses the classification system and how to make sure that Congress gets the information it needs at CAP event.

“We have an administration, a current one, that has abused the classification and pseudo-classification system,” said Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), a leading congressional expert on terrorism, homeland security, and foreign affairs. “The body of material that has been classified is beyond what’s justified.”

Harman joined a panel of experts at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress and to discuss Congress’ access to national security information. Determining the proper balance between Congress’ need to have such information and the importance of maintaining national security secrets is a complex task, but one which the experts agreed is in desperate need of re-evaluation.

“The remarkable thing is that nobody but nobody argues that the classification system is working now,” said Steven Aftergood, Senior Research Analyst and Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

“The body of material that has been classified is beyond what’s justified,” Harman agreed. “It’s not OK to hide things that are [merely]… politically embarrassing.”

The executive branch has often resisted congressional requests for classified information. Yet the Bush administration has claimed unprecedented presidential powers to act alone or in contravention of congressional enactments. A new report released at the event, “Congressional Access to Classified National Security Information,” provided an overview of this issue, concluding that Congress has both a constitutional and statutory right to access information within the executive branch, including classified information.

“Fear of congressional leaks is often used to justify withholding information from Congress,” said Mark Agrast, Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. “But our system of checks and balances requires that Congress have the information it needs to oversee and investigate the executive branch… With the recent shift of control of both houses of Congress, we appear to be entering a period of more aggressive oversight.”

The experts all agreed with Agrast that “recent congresses have been far less zealous in their defense of congressional prerogatives” than their predecessors.

“Surely in the last six years, and it surely has happened before, congressional oversight has been inadequate,” said Harman. “Congress has been at recess the last six years.”

“Congress has got to step up to the plate and be aggressive and intelligent in its oversight,” said Eleanor Hill, former Staff Director of the Joint Congressional Inquiry on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. “Leaks do happen, but that is part of the price you pay in a democracy.”

“The troubling part is the extent to which the administration has gone to classify or over-classify,” added Eric Lichtblau, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on federal law enforcement and national security issues for The New York Times. “It certainly makes our job harder… [Reporters] feel they are in the line of fire.”

Lichtblau learned of the extent of the administration’s resistance to the release of classified information first hand from the inappropriate backlash after The New York Times published his article exposing the NSA warrantless surveillance program.

“Not long after we published the NSA story the attorney general went on ‘Meet the Press’ and suggested we might be charged under the Espionage Act,” Lichtblau explained. “We in the media see us as having an important role in acting as a backstop to provide information that we feel the public has a right to know.”

The experts agreed that Congress and the press’ ability to act as watchdogs is necessary in a post-9/11 world.

“I don’t have a problem with the president thinking the world has changed [since 9/11]… I do have a problem with Congress being kept in the dark,” Harman said. “It was the 9/11 Commission that warned about [over-classification]!”

The 9/11 Commission concluded that over-classification in part facilitated the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because it prevented different departments from sharing relevant information. “[Over-classification] only makes it more difficult to prevent another terrorist attack,” said Harman.

“How to get this right, not just to correct the imbalance of the last six years, but to correct the imbalance for the next president, whoever she may be, is tricky,” Harman emphasized, quipping, “I thought that project is one I would like to assign to CAP!”

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