Center for American Progress

Taking the Right Steps to Improve Intelligence Oversight

Taking the Right Steps to Improve Intelligence Oversight

Both the authorizing and appropriating committees need to step up their oversight efforts and work together more constructively.

The 9/11 Commission did a tremendous job of investigating the events that led up to attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and explaining those events in a fair, balanced, and comprehensible manner. Their product was so good that they felt compelled to make some recommendations about what the country should do in response to the events they had described.

Unfortunately, the calendar did not give the staff and commissioners the opportunity to exercise the same diligence in formulating recommendations that they had applied to the report itself. In fact, the recommendations were pieced together based on the commissioners’ best judgments with little examination into the practicality or efficacy of those judgments. The recommendations were made without the benefit of hearings or even staff investigations, opposing views were not solicited, and there was little certainty as to whether the proposed changes would actually have the desired impact on policy formulation and security.

Some of the recommendations stand up well based on further scrutiny. But some clearly need the additional vetting that the Commission was unable to offer. One example is the recommendation that Congress strengthen its oversight of intelligence by either forming a single joint committee of the two houses to deal with all intelligence matters, or transferring funding responsibilities for intelligence from the Appropriations Committees of the two houses to the House and Senate Intelligence Authorizing Committees.

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a similar reorganization today. She plans to establish a new House intelligence oversight committee that will draw its members from the House Intelligence and Appropriations committees and have the authority to oversee funding for the major intelligence agencies.

Both the commissioners and Rep. Pelosi neglect to explain how one committee would do a better job than two, and seemed to have been completely oblivious to the catastrophic history of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy—the only modern joint committee of the Congress with legislative authority.

That committee was finally abandoned 31 years after its creation. It served as an uncritical advocate of the atomic energy activities it had been charged with overseeing. The JCAE kept critical information to itself and left the remainder of the Congress in the dark about fundamental issues regarding the nation’s nuclear activities, including the massive environmental damage taking place at weapon production facilities and the environmental and proliferation risks posed by civilian nuclear power programs.

The ongoing clean up at U.S. weapons facilities has already cost the taxpayers $50 billion, and some estimates place the total cleanup costs at above a quarter of a trillion dollars. Widespread public distrust of government policy toward nuclear power generation forced a three decade moratorium in construction of additional nuclear generation capacity.

Also suggested by the commission was the transfer of authority to appropriate money for intelligence activities from the Appropriations Committees of the two houses to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. This recommendation is so tied up in the intricacies of the legislative process that most Americans would have difficulty understanding just what the proposal did or was intended to accomplish. In fact, the same might be said for the commissioners themselves.

As a result of the Intelligence Reform Act of 1974, two committees in each house have responsibility for writing permanent law regarding intelligence matters: the House Permanent and Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. They examine the legal authorities that are required to conduct intelligence, examine the structure of the bureaucracies that administer the programs, and look at long term issues both with respect to the kinds of intelligence the nation needs and the capacity of existing intelligence organizations to provide such information.

But like all other activities of the government, providing the authority for the executive branch to proceed with an activity is not the final step. A second process examines all authorized programs and policies, and weighs them against the funds that are available. As a result, we don’t provide the intelligence agencies with every dime that might be usefully spent, but with amounts that are consistent with what we are able to spend on other high priorities The military assets that the intelligence agencies frequently task, but which remain in the regular Defense Department budget are an example of this.

This is the job of the appropriations process. It is intended to divide up our resources as wisely as possible and force competition within the executive branch for the finite resources available.

There is obviously overlap between the responsibilities of the authorizers and the appropriators, and there is certain to be differing points of view between them about how programs are structured or which programs merit the highest priorities. There is also a way to resolve those differences. Appropriators who feel that the authorizing committee is mistaken on a particular issue can offer amendments to authorizing legislation and authorizers can do the same with respect to appropriation bills. In the end, it is not the committees that pass the bills, but the entire membership of both bodies.

Perhaps more importantly, the differing perspectives held by members of the two sets of committees provide the Congress with an internal check and balance against the abuse of power. The Congressional Research Service recently summarized the findings of The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy: A Study in the Fusion of Government Power by Harold Green and Allen Rosenthal, the definitive book on that committee:

The joint committee arrangement resulted in Congress being presented with less opportunity for choice among alternative ideas. Instead of a choice from two or more measures, the House and Senate were faced with one legislative product presented to them from the start of the process.

The intelligence authorizing committees have had a troubled existence for much of their 32 year history. It can accurately be said that in recent years the House Intelligence Committee has been in a state of almost perpetual conflict with its Senate counterpart, the agencies it oversees the House appropriators, and even amongst its own members and staff.

The Commission did not systematically examine the functioning of that committee, nor did it hear from a single witness from the Appropriations Committee to get its perspective on oversight problems or possibilities for improvement.

That is unfortunate because much of the best oversight of intelligence in recent years has been performed by the appropriations committee, which has not only several senior legislative staff dedicated to the examination of intelligence budgets and oversight, but also has an entire team of investigators performing audits and examining program effectiveness. Awareness of the extent of those activities might well have altered the recommendation by the commission that they be eliminated in the name of expanding intelligence oversight.

The Congress needs to step up its efforts to monitor and evaluate the operations and activities of the executive branch on a government wide basis. As the 9/11 Commission emphasizes, that effort is particularly important with respect to intelligence activities, and neither the authorizing committee nor the appropriating committee is doing as much as it should. Both need to step up their efforts, and both must make a much more concerted effort to cooperate and work constructively with the other. New leadership on both committees opens the door wide for that opportunity.

One obvious step would be for each to vet their proposed legislative packages with the other before reporting them from committee. Another would be to conduct joint hearings on topics of mutual concern or set up joint ad hoc task forces made up of members of both committees.

Upgrading staff is essential for both committees. Intelligence oversight requires not only expertise in the technical issues related to collection, but also a strong understanding of this nation’s agenda in the world and the role that intelligence plays in our ability to move that agenda. Finally, the job of intelligence oversight by the Congress is one that requires an understanding of the Congress itself, its Constitutional role, and the process by which legislation is adopted. That includes an understanding of the importance of both comity and compromise.

Denis McDonough, Mara Rudman, and Peter Rundlet of the Center for American Progress released a set of recommendations for reforming the intelligence oversight process in June entitled: No Mere Oversight: Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow