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Bessent: Congress, CIA should spend more time working together

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination hearing for U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC. (Feb. 7, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

While targeted executions of American citizens believed to be terrorists grabbed most of the attention when Senators grilled thepresident’s nominee to head the CIA Thursday, a close second was leaks.

Members of the Intelligence Committee demanded to know why the press seems to get so much information from the agency while they get so little.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) even accused John Brennan, the president’s nominee for CIA Director, of disclosing classified information to the press. He accused him of tipping off television reporters about a double agent in Yemen who played a key role in thwarting an al Qaida plot to get a suicide bomber with asophisticated explosive device under his clothes, aboard a U.S. bound airliner. CIA operatives seized the device outside Yemen, and then grabbed the would-bebomber as well.

“It seems to me that the leak the Department of Justice is looking for is right here in front of us,” Risch said.

Brennan admitting he told reporters that the United States had “inside control” of the operation. But the 26-year intelligence veteran and Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor visibly bristled at the suggestion that he’d revealed the role of the double agent or compromised his safety.

What committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) and others members really seemed mad about, however, is a long history of being stonewalledby intelligence officials and, most recently, being denied access to classified memos laying out the administration’s legal justification for the targeted killings. They were finally allowed to see two of those memos Wednesday, but their staffs were prohibited from reading them and the Senators are still seeking eight other documents.

There has always been tension between the intelligence community, whose job is to keep secrets, and Congress, which has itself been accused of leaking like a sieve. (As if keeping the public informed when possible is a bad thing. It isn’t.) Brennan promised the CIA would be more transparent if the Senate signs off on his appointment to head the CIA.

That’s what they all say, but it would be good if he means it.

In a world full of threats to the nation -- cyberterror, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, violence rocking the Middle East, al Qaida taking upresidence in North Africa and more -- Congress and the U.S. intelligence community need to spend more time fighting together and less time fighting one another.