Secrecy vs. Congressional Oversight

10.27.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Keeping secrets from the press and the public may be frustrating and occasionally illegal. But executive branch secrecy directed at Congress is actually subversive to the extent that it undermines the performance of legislative oversight.

Such secrecy was on vivid display at an April 6, 2006 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on the Department of Justice, the record of which has just been published.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the sole witness, consistently evaded or deflected a wide range of basic policy questions.

He was so reluctant to give definitive responses to congressional questions that at one point he refused to endorse the well-established requirements of existing law.

Would the Bush Administration ever conduct “purely domestic warrantless surveillance between two Americans?” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wanted to know.

“I’m not going to rule it out,” the Attorney General replied, unintentionally making headlines the next day.

The answers to many of the Committee’s questions are classified, the Attorney General repeatedly stated, and could not be presented. Eventually, even Republican supporters of Bush Administration policies began to run out of patience.

“Mr. Attorney General, how can we discharge our oversight responsibilities if every time we ask a pointed question we are told that the answer is classified?” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI).

“We need to have answers,” he said. “And we’re not getting them.”

“I am really concerned that the Judiciary Committee has been kind of put in the trash heap,” Chairman Sensenbrenner said at the conclusion of the hearing.

Aside from classification restrictions, AG Gonzales displayed a surprisingly weak grasp of many of the issues raised by the Committee; he said “I don’t know” at least twenty-one times. He also declined to answer questions that touched on internal Administration deliberations. And he adhered to a view that classified intelligence matters are strictly the domain of the congressional Intelligence Committees, not the Judiciary Committees.

The newly published hearing record includes (in the PDF version) nearly 100 pages of somewhat more substantive follow-up questions and answers for the record, transmitted in September 2006. Topics included domestic surveillance, the President’s classification and declassification authority, the possible use of military force against U.S. persons suspected of being terrorists, the use of Presidential signing statements, and so forth. Most of this material seems to restate previously articulated positions.

The hearing transcript features some sublimely obtuse moments.

“Do you have the highest security clearance that is available in the United States Government?” asked Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY).

“As far as I know, yes,” the Attorney General said.

See “United States Department of Justice,” hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, April 6, 2006.

“We have legitimate oversight questions, and we’re told it’s classified, so we can’t get to the bottom of this,” a frustrated Rep. Sensenbrenner said.

“Maybe there ought to be some declassification,” he mused.