Our government is set up in a way that uses a system of checks and balances in order to make sure that one branch of government does not obtain too much power. While it is arguable whether each branch of the United States federal government is equal, the integrity of the process in “checking” other branches is essential to preserving our freedoms.
These checks on government power can cause tension between the branches, as they each try to strike the appropriate balance. The executive branch has seen a particular growth in power. It is therefore the role of the courts or the Congress to rein it in.
The Congress has attempted to investigate the executive branch on a number of issues in recent years: Operation Fast and Furious, the terrorist attack at our consulate in Benghazi, and the IRS targeting of tea party groups. Each case has proven to be difficult for various reasons, including the assertion executive privilege, the withholding of documents, and executive employees invoking the Fifth Amendment. It has also highlighted the difficultly of different divisions within the executive branch checking each other with the integrity worthy of our founding principles.
The Executive Branch has also taken to the idea that it can selectively enforce our laws. Some of these examples include the Obama administration’s refusal to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act and the selective enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, immigration laws and bankruptcy laws.
But the latest battle to emerge is perhaps the biggest yet, and this is the battle between the Senate and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is a part of the executive branch. It is the role of the Senate Intelligence Committee to check the power of the CIA. For years the Senate has been trying to conduct an investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. In an agreement with the CIA, it set up a secure computer where Senate staffers were allowed to comb through the six million pages of documents released by the CIA. During this search, they stumbled upon an internal CIA document called the “Internal Panetta Review.” This is a document the CIA apparently did not want the Senate to see, to the point where the CIA spied on the computer set up for the Senate investigation to determine how they obtained the document.
The fact that the CIA went so far as to spy on the Senate then set off a barrage of inquiries by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which went unanswered. Finally, on March 11th Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, made a speech on the floor of the Senate explaining her side of this story. She calls this a “defining moment” for our Congress and its ability to effectively monitor our nation’s intelligence community.
Without proper oversight, the intelligence community becomes a secret Fourth Branch of government that can operate outside the confines of our Constitutional framework. Should we trust the executive branch and the intelligence community to simply do the right thing, or is maintaining these checks important? If Congress loses its ability to check the executive, then who holds them accountable if they act outside the Constitution or violate our rights?
We shouldn’t be so quick to allow one branch of government to run away with power. We risk losing our freedoms, keeping liberty so long as they allow it.
Full text of a statement made on the floor of the US Senate on 11 March 2014 by Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, as provided by her office
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