Congressional Oversight of Intelligence ‘Is a Joke’

This article appeared on Cato​.org on November 11, 2015.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a number of congressional investigations, commission reports and think‐​tank policy papers have examined the state of congressional oversight of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). These reports, to one extent or another, have largely been in agreement with the subtitle of a 2006 Center For American Progress report: “Congressional Oversight of Intelligence Is Broken.”

None of the reports — many of them lengthy, detailed and prepared by top intelligence policy experts — were as focused as the blunt assessment of the problem in a one‐​page, three‐​paragraph Memorandum for the Record (MFR) found in the National Archives’ 9/11 Commission files. The MFR memorialized a June 21, 2004, meeting between then‐​Sen. Chuck Hagel and 9/11 Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton. Hagel, a longtime member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), would later chair the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board before serving as President Obama’s secretary of defense.

“There is no accountability,” Hagel told Hamilton, the MFR reported. “Hagel said that oversight of the intelligence community is a joke.”

Three years later, Hamilton testified before the SSCI, explaining that the road to accountability in congressional oversight of the IC was paved with gold.

“All of us have to live by the Golden Rule: That is, he who controls the gold makes the rules,” he said.

Hamilton also testified that one of the most important recommendations of the 9/11 Commission — the centralization of the IC appropriation process in the Intelligence Committees — had yet to be implemented.

“The Founders understood the importance of checks and balances on Executive power. That is why they gave the power of the purse to the Congress,” he reminded the senators. “The single most important step to strengthen the power of the intelligence committees is to give them the power of the purse.”

On March 6, 2008, 14 of the 15 Senators on the SSCI signed a joint letter to the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, urging them to follow Hamilton’s advice and create a permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence within the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Both chairs of the Senate Appropriations Committee responded with a joint letter opposing the proposed reforms, which were then rejected by the leadership.

The consequences of weak oversight of the IC appropriations process were revealed on Aug. 29, 2013, when The Washington Post published details from Edward Snowden’s leak of the IC’s $53 billion “black budget” summary for fiscal year 2013. The budget summary revealed a bloated IC budget that had grown massively since Sept. 11, 2001.

“The surge in resources for the agency funded secret prisons, a controversial interrogation program, the deployment of lethal drones and a huge expansion of its counterterrorism center,” the Post reported.

Hamilton told the Post that access to budget details resulting from Snowden’s leak “will enable an informed public debate on intelligence spending for the first time.”

Yet two years after Snowden’s disclosures, there is no sign that such an informed debate on intelligence spending is taking place in Congress — or will ever take place, if past appropriations are any indication of what we can expect in the future.

In 2007, the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence published an article by James S. Van Wagenen titled “A Review of Congressional Oversight: Critics and Defenders.” Van Wagenen — a veteran member of the IC who began his career as a staff member for the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Defense — was the Defense Intelligence Agency Chair at the Joint Military Intelligence College at the time.

“Year in and year out … the committees authorize and the appropriations committees appropriate the bulk of the budget requested by the DCI,” he wrote. “The oversight committees have not been at all reluctant to increase funding for programs and capabilities they perceive to be important.”

Van Wagnenen revealed the extent to which the congressional oversight committees had already been co‐​opted by the IC — as far back as 1997. According to his article, “(t)he top echelons of the IC are replete with former professional staffers of the intelligence committees, and the committees themselves continue to draw staff expertise from the Community.”

To illustrate Van Wagnenen’s point: George Tenet was appointed director of the CIA in 1997. Two years earlier, he was working in the executive branch as the Senior Director for Intelligence Programs at the National Security Council. Before that, he was working in Congress as the Staff Director of the SSCI.

And so on and so forth.

True accountability in IC oversight will be elusive until Congress is forced to change its culture of revolving‐​door cronyism. More than 10 years after Hagel’s frank assessment, congressional oversight of the IC is still a joke — a bad joke, at the expense of the American people.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.