Limited Senate access to CIA intelligence is not conspiracy

Senator Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul splits with Amash on Trump impeachment The Go-Go's rock the stage at annual 'We Write the Songs' DC concert GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending MORE gets it wrong when he says the “deep state” of the federal government is to blame for the White House decision to restrict which lawmakers could meet with CIA director Gina Haspel to discuss the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It is dangerous for our democracy when a sitting senator conflates a conspiracy theory of a rogue deep state secretly controlling our national levers of power with overt security policy decisions made by the president and lawmakers.

Paul is correct that this circumstance for limiting access in this case seems to be an inappropriate invocation of standing protocols for when and why access of classified information must be limited to just a small number of senators and no staff. But asserting a sinister plot behind the decision undermines trust in how the careful compact for legislative oversight of classified programs works and why the balance between protecting classified programs and the legitimate role of Congress in overseeing those charged with this mission must not be blown up.

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“There are eight people in Congress who get briefings on intelligence and that is not democracy. That is not democratic representation nor is it democratic oversight,” Paul said. Like all senators, he has insight on the scope of classified information the Senate Intelligence Committee is charged with overseeing on behalf of the chamber as a whole. I served as a staff member on this committee, and I served at the CIA. I also know much about the rationale for why extraordinarily sensitive information is kept close hold. While the overwhelming number of leaks emanate from the executive branch, restricting access on Capitol Hill of some kinds of information is important and correct even if it is invoked all too often.

The assertion that limiting access to a small subset of senators to protect sources and methods as being incompatible with democracy really is an argument for having no gradations of information sensitivity or reasons to minimize the chance that adversaries see it. The intelligence community restricts who in its own midst sees classified information. Congress is certainly not the only branch of government that believes in such rules.

The Senate has formal rules for managing access to classified information codified in publicly available procedures adopted by the chamber. These rules require the executive branch to “provide a quarterly report of all presidential findings to conduct covert action and submit annual threat reports, tell the committees of any new or anticipated significant activity or events, and report on any violations of law.” The rules also state that “eachmember shall at all times have access to all papers and other material received from any source” but that access “shall be limited in scope to those committee staff members with an appropriate security clearance and a need to know as determined by the committee.” These rules were adopted by the Senate, not imposed by a mythical deep state.

The Senate has long standing norms and understandings for why some classified information must be withheld from the chamber as a whole, or even only to the “gang of eight” members on the committee and leaders of the Senate. I believe these restrictions are invoked all too often and seemingly to reduce legitimate inquiry as much as to protect information. Knowing only what I read in the press, I am a loss to understand the rationale behind limiting the number of members allowed to meet with Haspel regarding the apparent state sponsored murder of Khashoggi.

Rather than invoking a dangerous conspiracy theory about a secret deep state controlling the federal government, the Senate did exactly the right thing and used its power to compel the administration to send Haspel to Capitol Hill. The executive branch has power to not send the director, while the Senate has power to subpoena, express displeasure, impose sanction, and withhold authorization or appropriation for programs important to the White House if it is not satisfied with this decision.

In this case the Senate acted and compromise was reached. Haspel was approved to brief members, and senators agreed to limit the number of members at the meeting. This is the democratic process in action. Paul has plenty of tools to challenge President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE and his fellow senators should he wish to press his case further, but asserting a conspiracy is dangerous for our governing norms and should not be one of them.

Todd Rosenblum is a former professional staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former intelligence officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. He also served as acting assistant secretary at the Department of Defense and deputy undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security. He is now a senior national security fellow with the Atlantic Council and a professor at George Washington University.