Not since the 1970s have intelligence activities — and intelligence oversight — been as central to America’s domestic political discourse as they are today. From presidential impeachment to election security, from explosive allegations of political wiretapping to debates over the regulation of social media platforms, U.S. spy agencies — as well as the myriad overseers tasked with checking their power — seem to play central roles in the most contentious issues of the day. The common thread is the tension always inherent to intelligence in a democratic society: the need to make necessarily secretive spy agencies accountable to the political branches of government but independent of politics. Yet even as intelligence agencies face unprecedented public scrutiny — and seek to meet unprecedented demands for transparency — the scale and complexity of their work has left many wondering whether meaningful control is possible.
The 2019 Cato Institute Surveillance Conference will explore that question with a special focus on the people and institutions tasked with watching the watchers, including congressional committees, inspectors general, independent privacy boards, and courts.