Sunday, December 13, 2009

Congress Approved Gang of Eight Notifications in 1980, Following the Iran Hostage Rescue Attempt

Congress approved the Gang of Eight notification provision in 1980 as part of a broader package
of statutory intelligence oversight measures generally aimed at tightening intelligence oversight
while also providing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) greater leeway to carry out covert
operations, 23 following a failed covert operation to rescue American embassy hostages in Iran.24

Congressional approval came after President Jimmy Carter decided not to notify the intelligence
committees of the operation in advance because of concerns over operational security and the risk
of disclosure. Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner briefed the congressional
intelligence committees only after the operations had been conducted. Although most members
reportedly expressed their understanding of the demands for secrecy and thus the
Administration’s decision to withhold prior notification,25 Senate Intelligence Committee
Chairman Birch Bayh expressed concern that the executive branch’s action reflected a distrust of
the committees. He suggested that future administrations could address disclosure concerns by
notifying a more limited number of Members “so that at least somebody in the oversight
mechanism would know .... If oversight is to function better, you first need it to function [at
all].”26 Such sentiments appear to have contributed to the subsequent decision by Congress to
permit the executive branch to notify the Gang of Eight in such cases.27

Endnotes

23 Congressional Quarterly Almanac, Vol. XXXVI, 1980, p. 66.

24 There actually were two separate operations — both of which constituted covert actions, since neither was
undertaken to collect intelligence — to rescue U.S. embassy personnel after Iranian “students” overran the U.S.
Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. The failed operation involved an attempted airborne rescue of U.S. hostages
which was aborted when three of the rescue helicopters experienced mechanical difficulties. A subsequent collision of
one of the helicopters and a refueling plane left seven American rescuers dead. An earlier effort resulted in the
successful extrication of six Americans who had been working at the U.S. embassy but had avoided capture by taking
refuge in the residences of the Canadian ambassador and deputy chief of mission.

25 At the time, the Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974 requiring that the executive branch report on Central Intelligence
Agency covert operations to as many as eight congressional committees, including the intelligence committees, was
still the law.

26 See L. Britt Snider, The Agency and the Hill, CIA’s Relationship With Congress, 1946-2004, (Washington, D.C.:
Center For the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 2008), p. 283.

27 Ibid.

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