We have been here before, and so we know how it should be done.
One Sunday evening in January 2011, Saxby Chambliss answered his phone. Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was on the other end.
That November, Democrats had lost seats in the mid-term election, but retained control of the U.S. Senate. New committee assignments had yet to be public, and so Chambliss had told no one that he was about to become the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Panetta knew anyway. He was head of the CIA. “He said, ‘Mr. Vice-Chairman, I need to talk to you about something,” Chambliss told me.
Officially or not, Chambliss had just been inducted into one of the most elite circles on the planet.
The senator and the CIA director met the next morning. “That was my first briefing on their observation of Osama bin Laden,” the Georgia senator said. The updates continued on a weekly basis.
The situation that Panetta sketched was a diplomatic tinderbox. The author of the 9/11 attacks had been traced to a compound in northern Pakistan, a U.S. ally that had served as a staging ground for American operations against Al Qaeda – the extremist group founded by bin Laden – in neighboring Afghanistan.
That should sound familiar: A very bad guy caught on an alleged friend’s territory.
Panetta was a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, a Democrat. Chambliss was a Republican. But the senator was also now a member of the Big Eight, a.k.a., Gang of Eight, a committee of key congressional leaders who have access to government secrets that other members of Congress don’t, regardless of party affiliation.
A team of Navy SEALS paid their fatal visit to bin Laden on the first Sunday in May, four months after Chambliss was brought into the loop.
‘I was called by Panetta again on a Sunday night – five o’clock or six o’clock, telling me that it had happened,” Chambliss said. “It was after-the-fact, but I was one of the first calls he made. I don’t think any congressional member had prior notice.”
The point is that, when President Obama went before a national audience that evening and announced that bin Laden had been killed, the most important Republicans and Democrats in Washington already knew. They had been briefed on the risks, had been given a chance to be heard, and so shouldered at least a small share of the responsibility for the outcome.
Nine years later, there are many reasons to worry over President Donald Trump’s order to kill, via drone, Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani as he left the Baghdad airport last Friday.
Osama bin Laden wasn’t a state actor with access to nuclear weapons. Iran now appears to be dashing toward membership in the nuclear club. Bin Laden didn’t have access to a new generation of high-precision missiles that can be farmed out to allies and aimed at any number of U.S. targets. Iran does.
But the most alarming post-Soleimani development may have come Sunday, when President Trump bestowed something close to constitutional authority upon his own Twitter account:
“These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
In 2011, the Big Eight were informed within minutes of Osama bin Laden’s death. In 2020, key congressional leaders were to receive their first high-security briefing on Tuesday evening, five days after Soleimani’s assassination. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is not a member of the Big Eight, and thus doesn’t count.
At the end of the 18th century, the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the sole power to declare war. In a nuclear age of ICBMs, keeping top congressional leaders apprised of events became a somewhat accepted substitute.
Trump appears ready to shrink that oversight even further. The problem is that armed conflict is traditionally a bipartisan affair not just to allow the use of force to be weighed and measured by multiple parties – though that is not a bad thing.
You bring members of the other party into the fold so that, should things go south – and wars have been known to go in that direction, they can share the blame. And thus make your cause more resilient when times get tough.
“This is a major reason why there needs to be a positive relationship between the commander-in-chief and Congress,” Chambliss said. “He needs to be able to trust folks, giving them advance notice, and obviously he doesn’t feel like he can right now – for whatever reason.”
Democrats will say that Trump has done nothing in his first three years in office to indicate that he wants a relationship with anyone in Congress who might challenge him. Hence the second of two articles of impeachment passed by the House last month.
Trump’s base is already arguing that impeachment negates any moral obligation for their champion to consult with congressional Democrats in what could soon be a hot war with Iran.
And that requires us to climb back into the ‘Way Back Machine and set the dial to August 1998. After long denying it, President Bill Clinton had just admitted to an affair with a White House intern.
Three days later, Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on Al Qaeda bases in both Afghanistan and Sudan, in retaliation for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224.
“Wag the Dog,” a dark film satire of a president who gins up a fake war to divert voter attention, had come out the year before. Many Republicans in Congress accused Clinton of a similar motivation.
One particular GOP congressman from Georgia was not among those cynics. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had been pushing his chamber to impeach the president – U.S. House members would do so later that December. (The Democrat-controlled Senate would acquit him.)
Even so, Gingrich wasn’t kept in the dark about Operation Infinite Reach. The House speaker informed reporters that he had been told “very precise details” of the two-country attack before it occurred. He praised Clinton aides for being “sensitive to making sure we were not blindsided in this.”
What happened then should be happening now. In politics, you don’t trust the other side because you want to. You trust them because you have to.
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