Hoekstra plea shows need for oversight

Rep. Peter Hoekstra wasn’t a likely candidate to complain about Bush administration secretiveness. The Michigan Republican is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and supported the administration when the New York Times published reports about warrantless wiretaps on U.S. citizens and clandestine surveillance of international banking transactions. He has even hinted that he wouldn’t be upset to see prosecutions of media members and those who leak information to them.

This past weekend, however, a letter he wrote to President Bush in May was made public. In it, Hoekstra complained that “I have learned of some alleged intelligence community activities about which our committee has not been briefed. If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the administration, a violation of the law, and just as importantly, a direct affront to me and members of this committee … The U.S. Congress should not have to play Twenty Questions to get the information that it deserves under our Constitution.”

U.S. intelligence services are supposed to brief House and Senate intelligence committees on major intelligence programs. In appearances on Sunday TV shows, Rep. Hoekstra has said he was briefed about the program he complained about, the nature of which he did not disclose, after sending the letter. Whether this incident was simply an oversight, a disagreement about whether a program was “major” or not, or a sign that Congress is getting restive about the Bush administration’s habitual secrecy, is difficult to tell.

We hope it is the latter. The Constitution gives the president the primary responsibility to act in matters of war and national security, but Congress has constitutional authority as well, not only to declare war but to control the nation’s purse strings and regulate the military. Congress has not fulfilled its responsibilities very well.

Many have complained, with a good deal of justification, about the Bush administration’s tendency to expand executive power, to act in secret and on its own “plenary” (or unlimited) authority during times of conflict, and to improvise strategy rather than looking to precedent, existing law and the desirability of involving all branches of government in controversial decisions. But Congress, by and large, has allowed it to expand executive power not only by acquiescing in questionable executive-branch decisions but by refusing to exercise (and take responsibility for) the authority it has in our system of government.

Thus Congress didn’t insist on a declaration of war after 9/11 other than a vague resolution authorizing the use of force. It has not used the power of the purse to regulate military activity. It has held only fitful hearings in response to news stories about questionable surveillance, Guantanamo and incidents like Abu Ghraib rather than exercising continuing oversight over the executive branch.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which declared illegal plans for improvised military commissions at Guantanamo, was as much a slap at Congress for failing to oversee the executive as of the executive branch for blundering ahead without taking existing law into account. If even loyal administration allies like Peter Hoekstra are starting to complain about executive branch secrecy, genuine oversight may be in the offing.

It’s about time.