CIA Briefings Were Like 'Playing 20 Questions,' Says Former Ranking Member of Intel Committee

By Matt Cover | April 7, 2010 | 12:41 PM EDT

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.)

( – Rep. Jane Harman (D.-Calif.), the former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, says that Central Intelligence Agency briefings of that committee were like "playing 20 questions."
“If you don’t ask precisely the right question, then you don’t get the information,” said Harman.

Harman also said that she believes the Bush administration “cherry-picked” the intelligence information that it presented to the public “to make the case look worse” in certain instances. 

Speaking Tuesday at a conference on intelligence reform, Harman said her view that CIA briefings were like playing "20 questions" was shared by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the current ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, who formerly served as the committee chairman.
“Pete Hoekstra has said, and I think would still say if he were here, and that is that we play--those of us on the Intelligence Committee--play 20 questions,” said Harman. “If you don’t ask precisely the right question, then you don’t get the information.”

Harman said that both the House and Senate intelligence committees should be given “full information” by the administration rather than the limited briefings they currently receive. Congress, she said, is an independent branch of government and is responsible for overseeing the operations of the intelligence community, a function she said it could not fulfill unless it is given all the facts.
“My version of this--and I’m just speaking for myself--is that the intelligence committees, which are leadership-appointed committees, should be given full information,” said Harman. “We’re an independent branch of government.”
Harman, who serves on the Homeland Security Committee and is the chairman of its Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, told that while the intelligence provided in briefings had never been false or misleading, it was limited in its scope.
“I remember many briefings where the briefers were low-level, and every time you asked a question or I asked a question they [would] say, ‘Gee, that’s not in my lane, sorry, I can’t answer that,’ and it was colossally frustrating,” said Harman.
She said that the seniority of briefers sent by the administration to Congress is improving, as is the depth of the information provided. But she was careful to note that while intelligence had not been politicized when it was presented to Congress, getting administration officials to disclose the totality of what they knew had been a difficult process.
“I’m not alleging politicization, I’m making a point that it was like playing 20 questions,” she said. “If you didn’t ask precisely the right question of the right person, you couldn’t get the information.”

Harman went on to say that intelligence officials, cautious about disclosing sensitive national security information to too many people, should understand that Congress serves as a check on the administration, and added that liberty and security are not “a zero-sum game.”
“Congress is an independent branch of government,” said Harman. “It is responsible to oversee and fund our intelligence function and we have the obligation to keep America safe, but also to protect our Constitution. And I said that liberty and security are not a zero-sum game. We have to do both, and Congress is the place where I think that gets integrated.”
Harman said that while the Bush administration "cherry-picked" the intelligence it provided to the public, it did not do so in its briefings to the intelligence committee. She said, however, that the information that Congress received was "inadequate."
“I did believe in the last administration that some of the intelligence--and I’ve said this publicly--was cherry-picked to make the case look worse, but I’m not saying that happened in the briefings of our [House Intelligence] committee,” said Harman. “It happened in the public square where policies were explained by the last administration.”
“I believe that we did not get the information we needed in the committee,” she said. “We did not get the legal documents we requested. Many of our briefings and transcripts have been declassified pursuant to a FOIA request--I think by the ACLU--and you can read them. And you can see efforts by me and others to push back and ask for more information, which we never received.”
“We had inadequate information,” said Harman. “I was frustrated in my efforts to get the full committee briefed about a number of programs that I did not believe met the strict covert action restriction in the National Security Act, and those things didn’t happen. I no longer serve on the [House Intelligence] Committee. I know the committee is still pushing to get more information made available, and I hope they’re successful.”
Still, she said the briefing process was “a work in progress” in the Obama administration, noting that Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has briefed members of Congress at times.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Harman. “I believe that higher level briefers are coming, I know that DNI Blair comes, and I think that our coordinating mechanism is working, but more is more. And Congress intends to get the full picture and should get the full picture and should help make our intelligence community the best it can be.”
“Otherwise, we’re not going to learn the plans and intentions of bad guys before they attack,” she said.
Both the House and Senate included provisions in the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act, which funds covert operations, to mandate that the administration brief the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees about covert programs, and that it provide the full committees with its full legal justifications for such programs.
President Obama has twice vowed to veto the bill if those provisions, among others, are included, saying that it maintains the view of the Bush administration that while briefing Congress is required by law, what information is disclosed and how it is presented to Congress is a matter of executive privilege.