By Brian P. McGlinchey
Encouraged by rising, bipartisan support for a resolution urging President Obama to declassify 28 pages said to link Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 hijackers, the leaders of Capitol Hill’s declassification drive have now introduced a resolution directing the leaders of the House intelligence committee to take matters into their own hands.
Introduced Monday, House Resolution 779 directs the chair and ranking member of the House intelligence committee—Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff, respectively—to disclose the con the 28 pages by publishing them in the Congressional Record under the protection of the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause.
Congressman Walter Jones introduced the resolution along with original cosponsors Stephen Lynch and Thomas Massie. The same trio is the driving force behind House Resolution 14, which urges the president to release the pages that comprise the final chapter in the report of a 2002 congressional intelligence inquiry. Introduced last year, HRes 14 has seen a surge in support following an April 60 Minutes report on the 28 pages, and now has 70 cosponsors.
“I have read these pages and can say that while their release will not harm national security, the contents are critical to our foreign policy moving forward…That is why I have introduced a resolution that would enable the House Committee on Intelligence to declassify the 28 pages,” said Jones in a press release issued today.
Committee Leaders Support Declassification
In April, both Nunes and Schiff voiced their support for releasing the 28 pages. Nunes said “the benefits of publishing this information would outweigh any potential damage to America’s national security,” and Schiff told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “They should be released and I think, as is often the case, the speculation about what they contain is more damaging in fact than the contents.”
H.Res.779 has been referred to the House rules committee. The committee’s ranking member, Louise Slaughter, is a cosponsor of the resolution urging the president to declassify the pages.
The resolution’s preamble notes that the CIA has acknowledged that the 28 pages are the property of Congress and that the Supreme Court “upheld the constitutional prerogative of Members of Congress or committees of Congress to disclose classified information” by way of the Speech or Debate Clause.
This new legislative action comes as an intelligence community declassification review of the 28 pages is expected to wrap up in the next few weeks.
The White House said it ordered the review in the summer of 2014. Skeptical that a review of just 28 pages could truly take two years and counting, many observers—including 9/11 family members and victims—point to the delay as signaling the Obama administration’s desire to put off a resolution of the issue as long as possible.
The delay strategy grew untenable in April when the 60 Minutes report spawned fresh media attention, dozens of newspaper editorials, heightened citizen interest and an increase in legislator requests to read the secret pages. Soon after the 60 Minutes segment aired, former senator Bob Graham said that a Department of Homeland Security advisor told him to expect a decision in June.
However, confusion has mounted over what exactly will happen at the end of that review. In a May meeting with proponents of the pages’ release, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reportedly voiced an expectation that the president would turn the matter back over to the Congress. If that is indeed the White House’s intention, it could represent a new means of stalling the release of a document that, according to Graham, “point(s) a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier” of the 9/11 attacks. H.Res. 779 addresses that possibility head-on.
A New Angle on Speech or Debate Clause
The drive to declassify the 28 pages has spanned 13 years; throughout that time, many citizens have called for members of Congress to declassify the 28 pages by entering them into the congressional record under the protection from prosecution provided by the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause.
As we reported earlier this month, one of those advocating that avenue of declassification is former senator Mike Gravel, who used it to release the “Pentagon Papers,” a secret government history of the Vietnam War.
In his own declassification feat, Gravel had something that individual members of Congress lack where the 28 pages are concerned: physical custody of the document. The 28 pages are kept in a secure facility in the basement of the Capitol, precluding Jones, Lynch, Massie or other members of Congress from entering them into the record themselves.
Recognizing that, House Resolution 779 challenges those with greater dominion over the 28 pages—the chair and ranking member of the House intelligence committee—to do for Congress what rank-and-file members cannot do on their own.
Apart from the Speech or Debate Clause, both the House and Senate have rules by which either body, acting alone, can declassify information, even over the objection of the president. In both houses, the initiation of that process begins in the intelligence committee, but also entails seeking the president’s opinion and then a majority vote of the chamber to override it, if necessary.
In opting instead for a Speech or Debate Clause approach, Jones, Lynch and Massie are pursuing a route that bypasses the president and gives Congress an opportunity to assert its own authority by flexing a rarely-used muscle.
A Multi-Purpose Tactic
In the widening, multi-front battle to secure the release of the 28 pages, House Resolution 779 could serve two purposes.
First, the prospect of a congressional declassification of the 28 pages adds a new variable for Obama to weigh as he considers his own decision to declassify the 28 pages.
Embedded in his pending decision is yet another question: If the pages are released, what information, if any, should continue to remain secret? Knowing that the House intelligence committee could later release additional details he chose to conceal puts additional pressure on the president to be more liberal in his declassification. If he attempts to cater to Saudi Arabia or other interested parties by leaving damning details secret, he could face criticism and questioning of his motives if and when those details come out later.
Second, the new resolution also serves as a Plan B: Should the president decide not to release the 28 pages, to do so with heavy redactions, or turn the issue back to Capitol Hill, Congress would be poised to deliver transparency to the American people on its own.
“At a minimum, the draft resolution tends to maintain a drumbeat of pressure on the issue and makes it a tad more likely that the administration will act to release the material,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, in an email to 28Pages.org.” Whether the resolution does more than that depends on what kind of reception it receives in the House.”
The development was applauded by Sharon Premoli, who endured a harrowing escape from the World Trade Center on 9/11: “I think it is unconscionable that it has taken this administration 8 years to read 28 pages and to make a decision. Anything that can move congress to declassify the 28 pages is a good thing and I support it 100 percent.”