Congressional Democrats are aghast and apoplectic at revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency developed contingency plans to assassinate senior members of Al Qaeda in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Though the plans called for dispatching small teams of clandestine operatives to either capture or kill critical members of the terrorist group - such as it's leader Osama Bin Laden and his aide de camp Ayman Al-Zawahiri - they remained little more than vague conceptual skeletons. Plagued by legal, logistical and diplomatic concerns, the plans - such as they were - were never executed and left to collect dust on a proverbial classified shelf in the Agency's labyrinthine headquarters in Langley, Virginia. At the heart of the Democrat's self-righteous fury is the Agency's failure to disclose the program to Congress. Following directions from then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the existence of the program and it's associated plans were withheld from the two Congressional Intelligence Committees responsible for oversight of clandestine activity. Despite current CIA Director Leon Panetta having both terminated the program and informed Congress literally within hours of being briefed on it's existence, the Democratic chairs of both Intelligence Committees and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have demanded all pertinent information and called for a formal investigation of what they view as the Agency's having misled them for nearly eight years. Lawyers at Langley have responded that since the program essentially remained in the conceptual phase and failed to come to fruition, it did not meet the reporting criteria that trigger Congressional notification. While I would personally be aghast had the Agency not seriously considered such a program and the attendant contingencies, legalities and risks, the episode highlights a number of interesting points. Among them are..... - The ongoing tensions between transparency, operational security, oversight and effectiveness. To say the Agency has a storied history littered with adventurous miscalculations and unintended consequences is an understatement. They are the ones responsible for coining the term "blowback", after all. With their dirty laundry aired for public view by the Church Committee in the 70's, Langley was subsequently subjected to what many in "the Company" view as onerous Congressional oversight. In the ensuing decades, there has been an ongoing struggle for the Agency to effectively carry out it's mandate and maintain operational security while complying with Congress's desires for transparency. Many in the intelligence community, including Robert Baer, believe the ultimate result has been to inculcate a pervasive sense of apprehension among Agency personnel. This leads to a crippling aversion to the risky, frequently amoral activities and engaging with the unsavory and corrupt characters that are often integral to the successful execution of the Agency's mission. This latest episode highlights an example of planning for some of the more socially unacceptable activities associated with Agency's national security role and the fact that different interpretations of the reporting requirements that oversight entails continues to aggravate an already beleaguered and suspicious relationship between Langley and Capitol Hill. - The respective missions, institutional structure and cultures of Congress and the Agency guarantee that tension between the two will be the norm, not the exception. Compartmentalization and control of information is critical to the successful execution of the Agency's mission. This stands in stark contrast to the dissemination, discussion and debate of information that is likewise part and parcel of the role of Congress. Accordingly, the two institutions are naturally leery and suspicious of each other. Langley is fearful information provided in the course of notification and oversight will be leaked to the press and lead to a collapse of operational security. Should even program generalities - much less sources and methods - enter the public arena there is the possibility not only for the failure of intelligence collection, but also the compromise of Agency personnel. Sadly, as the Valerie Plame affair illustrates, such dangers are not the exclusive domain of the Legislative Branch. That's to say nothing of the possible imprisonment or execution of foreign nationals involved in Agency programs exposed by the press. This further hampers the Agency in fulfilling it's mission by dissuading possible foreign recruits from working with it for fear of exposure and the subsequent perils to life and limb, family and friends. Accordingly, secrecy and operational security are premium objectives to be maintained at all costs - including enduring ongoing tension with and episodic vitriol from Capitol Hill. Conversely, Congress - which is the world's largest marble megaphone - has an insatiable appetite for information, discussion and debate. The rumor mill, echo chamber and political public square run non-stop, 24/7. Unlike Langley, which is both metaphorically and literally isolated from the press, Capitol Hill and it's denizens are wired directly into it. Their relationship is symbiotic and hard-wired. With information being the coin of the realm in Washington, they - Congress and the press - are naturally suspicious of those who would horde and embargo it, regardless of the justification. Being the people's representatives, Congress seeks to ensure the Agency is acting in a lawful and morally acceptable fashion in the course of carrying out it's mission. Similarly, the press believes they play a complimentary role to that of Congress. Indeed, they see themselves as defenders of the republic, supplementing Congressional oversight by shining a probing, unfiltered light into the dark corners of Langley's secretive offices. The result is and will continue to be a relationship defined by the tense and often combative struggle between compartmentalization and dissemination of information. - Rightly or wrongly, the Agency will always be damned if they do and damned if they don't. Many of the same critics that blasted Langley as inept and intellectually bankrupt in failing to detect the 9/11 attacks prior to their initiation, now decry even the thought of dispatching teams of assassins to hunt down those who ordered and orchestrated the very same attacks. Never mind the fact that these were little more than brainstorming session eraser board scribbles, the very idea shakes the foundations of our moral authority, they protest. It is this self-righteous outrage, subsequent onerous oversight, lingering ghosts of the Church Committee and fear of federal prosecution that has critically hamstrung the Agency and it's personnel. The inevitable result is a schizophrenic bureaucracy that maddeningly vacillates between a sclerotic and moribund apprehensiveness, focused more on self protection than mission and a frenetic, no-holds-barred mania that often borders on the reckless and sophomoric. Accordingly you have an institution with often anemic capabilities that is alternately condemned for it's ineptness on the one hand and it's adventurism on the other. And finally.... - Despite his having decamped the security of the legendary undisclosed bunker beneath the Naval Observatory, former-Vice President Dick Cheney's influence continues to reverberate unabated throughout the marbled halls of Washington. Moreover, it shows no signs of dissipating any time in the near future. Same as it ever was, faithful readers. Same as it ever was. Stay tuned for further updates as events warrant and we see who wins this latest round between Langley's cloak and daggers and Capitol Hill's stuffed suits.