Congress long has leaked like a proverbial sieve. That's not always a bad thing. A lot of secrets should not be kept by government. But some are. It's time to apply the same security standards to legislators and their staffs as to other federal employees and government contractors.
The poster child for reform is Rep. William Jefferson (D- La.), who in 2006 was discovered with $90,000 in his freezer. Perhaps he simply doesn't believe in banks. Or perhaps he was bribed. His constituents, who reelected him, apparently believe the former, but the FBI is conducting an investigation based on a sting involving an African technology company. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi removed Jefferson from the influential Ways and Means Committee, presumably suspecting corruption.
Jefferson might enjoy a presumption of innocence in the courtroom, but there's enough evidence of his guilt to bar him from sensitive legislative work. Yet Speaker Pelosi has decided to place him on the Homeland Security Committee, a panel with even more critical duties than Ways and Means.
Jefferson is well qualified to handle homeland security matters, she explained, because his New Orleans district was badly hit by Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps the opportunity for financial corruption is less on Homeland Security than Ways and Means, though the former distributes billions in grants to local and state governments and contracts to private companies. Moreover, the Committee deals with matters of genuine national security -- preventing and responding to terrorist attacks.
Although her decision was ratified by the Democratic caucus, GOP members plan on forcing an unusual floor vote. As Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) observed, "You gotta wonder where Jefferson's gonna store all those homeland security secrets." The outcome is uncertain. Democratic leaders have threatened to retaliate, pointing out that two GOP members were recently convicted of crimes while others have been (and some remain under) investigation. But this circumstance merely offers another reason to limit congressional access to sensitive information.
The problem is not partisan, but institutional. Neither party has a monopoly on good legislators or good governance.
For instance, the Democrats also have Alcee Hastings (Fl.), removed from his federal judgeship in 1989 by the previous Democratic Congress over bribery allegations (which he beat in court). Speaker Pelosi had the good grace to deny Hastings the chairmanship of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. Other dubious characters with ethical conflicts are Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.). And let's not forget Rep. John Murtha (Pa.).
The GOP suffered a sleaze epidemic last session, with Representatives Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Bob Ney going to jail for corruption. Curt Weldon (defeated) and Jerry Lewis (reelected) ended up under investigation for possible misbehavior. Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay was forced from power after being indicted on political charges in Texas. Personal scandal enveloped Mark Foley (who had been dabbling with young male pages) and Don Sherwood (sued for allegedly beating his mistress).
Financial venality and sexual cupidity do not necessarily equate to treason or misuse of classified material. However, someone willing to sell his office for money might also be willing to sell his country. Someone with little personal self-control might not be the best person to whom to entrust the nation's secrets. Moreover, someone engaged in unsavory activity might be willing to sacrifice his country to prevent disclosures that would destroy his political career,
Even more important is the question of ideology. The point is decidedly not that being a liberal, or opposing the Iraq war, or even being a socialist makes one unpatriotic. (Extremists on the right no less than on the left can wish America ill.) Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) might be prepared to ruin the American economy, but no one thinks he is likely to deliver the nation's secrets to a foreign power. However, not so trustworthy are legislative advocates of the authoritarian and naive left. Sadly, such people are not unknown on Capitol Hill.
Consider Ron Dellums, long-time congressman newly elected at Oakland's Mayor. A member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Democratic Socialists of America, Dellums was the first open socialist to be elected since World War II. Under the seniority system he took over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee (which he lost when the GOP took control of Congress in 1994).
At best, he displayed stunning naivete. In 1982 he traveled to Grenada, affirming that there was no military use for the airport under construction, a claim disproved after the U.S. ousted the communist regime. Dellums reported back to Congress on his "findings," a draft of which he first sent to Grenadan Prime Minister Maurice Bishop for review.
The American invasion brought to light a letter from Dellums' chief of staff, Carlottia Scott, to Bishop declaring that "Ron has become truly committed to Grenada, and has some positive political thinking to share with you. ... He's really hooked on you and Grenada and doesn't want anything to happen to building the Revolution and making it strong. He really admires you as a person and even more so as a leader with courage and foresight, principles and integrity. ... The only other person that I know of that he expresses such admiration for is Fidel."
Dellums is gone, but his successor, Barbara Lee, is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and seemingly no less left-wing than Dellums. Leftist-turned-conservative David Horowitz claims to have met Lee at the Black Panthers headquarters of Huey Newton years ago.
Voters are entitled to elect whomever they want as representatives. Legislators are entitled to choose whomever they wish as leaders. But congressmen are not entitled to automatic access to classified information.
STAFFERS ON CRITICAL COMMITTEES who handle sensitive material are investigated and provided with security clearances. Members of Congress are not. Nor are their personal staffs.
The result is a huge security hole on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, irrespective of party, rarely are elected because they are trustworthy and responsible. The political process, alas, rewards other "skills." Yet today simply being elected yields access to material denied to most Americans. There is little to stop a venal, irresponsible, or hostile member from disseminating classified information for economic or political profit, or ideological gain.
Even a responsible member served by staffers who have received official clearances may be ill served by an aide in his personal office -- a chief of staff, legislative director, or someone else. Having received no special scrutiny to win access to sensitive material, legislators may treat such information more casually than justified. Staffers report that representatives of foreign powers sometimes troll for classified information in congressional in-boxes.
It doesn't much matter, in terms of national security, who sits on the Agriculture or Education and Labor Committees, for instance. But even largely mundane committees sometimes have at least one subcommittee dealing with sensitive matters: the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
Moreover, the Committees on Homeland Security, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs/Foreign Relations, and Intelligence regularly deal with sensitive matters. Consider the four subcommittees under the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis, and Counterintelligence; Technical and Tactical Intelligence; Intelligence Community Management; and Oversight and Investigations.
Should the American people be pleased at the thought of Alcee Hastings serving on this Committee? Would they feel comfortable with William Jefferson, Duke Cunningham, Don Sherwood, or John Murtha sitting on this panel? Or James Traficant, Ozzie Myers, or Bob Ney? Would Americans feel secure knowing that these legislators had appointed staffers to these committees?
Voters can elect whomever they want. Legislators can choose whomever they want for committee membership. But security investigations should be standard for members and staffers. Although concerns over separation of powers might limit executive branch prerogatives, Congress could order such investigations.
Clearing everyone on Capitol Hill would be quite a task -- 535 legislators and at least 16,000 staffers. However, formal clearances at least could be required for members of leadership and their top staffers, members and as well as staffers working on sensitive panels, and top personal staffers in the offices of such members. There should be no more automatic access to sensitive information, whatever the level, whoever the person. Similar checks should be initiated for chairman and ranking members, and relevant staff, of other committees and subcommittees; although such people might not normally come into contact with classified material, they constitute the leadership of Congress.
Moreover, federal investigations should conduct a superficial review of all members -- who, after all, will be voting on national security matters and will be positioned to see sensitive documents -- as well as their senior staff. The Justice Department should look for obvious security problems requiring further investigation. Finally all offices should be briefed on security procedures and provided with safes. Ultimately, legislators would continue to decide what member served on what committees and what staffers served what members, but access to classified material would require clearance from independent investigators.
It seems likely that William Jefferson is a crook. Absent a conviction, his fellow legislators should accept the decision of his constituents to return him to office. But they should not reward him with a sensitive committee assignment. If he isn't fit to write America's tax laws, he isn't fit to oversee America's anti-terrorism efforts.
But the problem runs beyond just one corrupt congressman. Capitol Hill might always leak, but it still could take its security responsibilities more seriously. We should hold elected officials to the same clearance standards to which we hold everyone else.
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