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Good Intelligence Requires an Active Congress

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The incoming 110th Congress and the American people now know which Democrats will be heading up the House and Senate intelligence committees: Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas and Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Both men boast deep experience with the 17 Executive Branch agencies responsible for American intelligence operations around the world, having served as minority members on their respective chamber’s intelligence committees. And both of them understand the deep institutional failures of these two committees to conduct effective oversight of these intelligence agencies over the past six years.

As the Center for American Progress noted in a comprehensive report published earlier this year—“No Mere Oversight: Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken”—partisan politics has recently crippled the ability of Congress to ensure that the U.S. Intelligence Community is operating effectively and efficiently. Efforts to avoid discussion of recent U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq and now Iran leave our country today without the proper oversight of intelligence that is critical to our national security.

That needs to change. As Rep. Reyes and Sen. Rockefeller begin to lay out their agenda for this Congress, they should consider that the United States at one time exerted very effective congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community, as our report details. The two committee chairmen need to lead their respective committees back toward that kind of bipartisan policing of those 17 intelligence agencies which once worked so well. The dangers facing our country demand nothing less.

Above all, the two intelligence committees require a professional working relationship between the majority- and minority-party committee members so that together they can fulfill their Legislative Branch oversight responsibilities of Executive Branch agencies. Once that’s reestablished, then the other more detailed instruments and mechanisms to conduct proper oversight can be embraced anew. Specifically:

  • The enactment, for the first time in three years, of the annual Intelligence Authorization Act
  • Robust oversight hearings
  • Serious staff investigations and field studies
  • Proper program evaluations by committee staff
  • Effective communications between committee staff and intelligence agency personnel
  • Systematic program evaluations by other congressional research agencies and executive branch inspector generals
  • Regular intelligence program reauthorization hearings

When the new Congress takes its place on Capitol Hill this coming January, few members have more to do than the intelligence committee members from both parties. A review of how congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community has been conducted over the past four decades and detailed suggestions of how to fix the process are clearly in order. We heartily recommend they all read “No Mere Oversight: Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken,” and view our event this past summer that discussed the report. For more information, please go to the following links:

Event Resources:


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