Human Rights

USA Theme A-2 - Page 16

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Democratic procedures were disregarded.

Officials who make public policy must be accountable to the public. But the public cannot hold officials accountable for policies of which the public is unaware. Policies that are known can be subjected to the test of reason, and mistakes can be corrected after consultations with the Congress and deliberations within the Executive branch itself. Policies that are secret become the private preserve of the few, mistakes are inevitably perpetuated, and the public loses control over Government. That is what happened in the Iran-Contra Affair.[41]

However, some critics find that rhetoric self-serving. Peter Kornbluh, an information analyst at the National Security Archive, writes:
The report's main conclusion reflects its protection of the status quo. In its identification of the roots of malfeasance, the Iran-contra report concludes that the scandal "resulted from the failure of individuals to observe the law, not from deficiencies in existing law or in our system of governance." This assessment makes it easy to avoid the critical but logical questions that should have been part of the inquiry--and part of a broad public debate over how to prevent similar abuses of power.

Was the scandal really an aberration or was this "disdain for law" and "pervasive deception" the natural outgrowth of a system of covert operations that has become integral to U.S. foreign policy? What was Congress's institutional role in the scandal? . . . To these questions the committees provide no answers. . . . The need for covert operations is not challenged but ratified. Thus, The Iran-Contra Affair fails to confront, let alone resolve, the most critical problem that has plagued the American polity since World War II--the incompatibility between a constitutional political system premised on the active consent of the governed, and an antidemocratic, autonomous, national security system predicated on secrecy, stealth, and nonaccountability.[42]

In the wake of the controversy, Congress considered a number of bills pertaining to congressional oversight of intelligence activities. The bill considered most likely to pass required that at least the top congressional leadership be notified of covert activities within 48 hours of their initiation. In contrast, the current legislation requires that Congress be notified in a "timely fashion." It is worth remembering that in November 1986, when asked to comment on "the prolonged deception of Congress" about the Iran arms deal, President Reagan said:
I was not breaking any law in doing that. It is provided for me to do that. I have the right under law to defer reporting to Congress, to the proper congressional committees, on an action, and defer it until such time as I believe it can safely be done with no risk to others.[43]