Professor’s book reveals Congressional oversights, earns positive reviews

Augustine Marinelli

Professor David M. Barrett of the political science department has just published a book titled “The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy.” This is a thorough, detailed and occasionally humorous look into congressional oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1947 until the early 1960s. Published in 2005, it has received positive reviews, most notably, a review in The Washington Post by Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s “Bin Laden Desk.”

Barrett became interested in congressional oversight of the CIA when previous research directed him to the papers of former Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell, a powerful Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

There Barrett discovered that “Russell knew more of CIA’s secrets than any other senator during the 1950s and 1960s.” Intrigued, he continued to research Russell’s documents on agency oversight and started to look at the papers of other congressmen whose committee seats (i.e., Appropriations, Armed Services, Atomic Energy) would have made them privy to knowledge of CIA affairs.

After eight years of research, Barrett discovered that “certain Congressional leaders knew many details about covert action [in the1950s-1960s],” despite the current public perception that the CIA had free rein to operate with no oversight in those years.

Barrett discovered that Congress was actually “aggressive” about covert action and often encouraged the agency to carry out operations, ill-advised or not. A notable example that Barrett cites in his book is the 1951 Kersten amendment, which, as he phrased it, “gave CIA $100 million and said, ‘Do what you want with it,'” despite concerns that this amendment might have violated part of the U.N. Charter. Congress could be unforgiving as well: in the wake of riots in Bogotá and the Korean War, they forced CIA brass to endure obnoxious tongue-lashings for “intelligence failures,” which echo the hits the agency took after the Sept. 11th attacks.

Despite Congress’ involvement with the CIA in these years, Barrett feels that their oversight was not “comprehensive or systematic” in nature.

Barrett said that the most interesting part of his research was discovering classified documents in the dusty, neglected papers of long-forgotten lawmakers. Barrett noted that oftentimes, the CIA would not release many relevant documents to him for research, since they are still classified to this day.

However, he found copies of relevant documents “in the papers of five dead Congressmen, so I used them.”

He also said that the wealth of “primary source materials” that he worked with, such as scrawled notes taken during CIA meetings, transcripts of hearings and personal reflections often provided the valuable insight that interviews years after the fact might omit.

In his eight years of research, Barrett said he learned of funny, strange and colorful incidents that took place as Congress tried to oversee the CIA. In a chapter entitled “Communists and ‘Perverts’ in the CIA,” he describes how the “Red Scare” of the 1950s prompted Congress to aggressively look at CIA personnel.

Quotations of Representative Arthur Miller of Nebraska describing “fairy parties” and explaining “homosexual terminology” during official hearings, as well as the Director of Central Intelligence describing a scenario in which a gay agent could be used to bring down a member of the Politburo are often humorous.

Descriptions of Congressman John Taber sending form letters to his constituents telling them, “You have not the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” and attempting to strangle a colleague in his office make for interesting reading.

Barrett concludes that Congressional oversight of the CIA, while more thorough that commonly thought, was still not as effective as it could be. Furthermore, he thinks that the increased emphasis on overseeing the CIA in the wake of the 1970s has proven to be ineffective.

Despite two large, permanent committees devoted to CIA oversight, Congress still does a fairly poor job of monitoring the agency. Barrett says, paraphrasing Michael Scheuer’s Washington Post review, “It comes down to people.”

Having the right people oversee the CIA, then and now, seems to be an elusive solution to the problem of effectively monitoring the agency. The events documented in David Barrett’s book seem to indicate this, which has relevance as the government restructures the intelligence-gathering apparatus in the wake of 9-11 failures.