The checks and balances written into the Constitution‐which go to the heart of the U.S. system of republican government‐ensure that no branch of government can dominate U.S. foreign and defense policy. For example, the Senate must approve treaties with foreign nations and confirm the Secretary of State, other high level State Department officials, and ambassadors. Furthermore, the Constitution says that the Congress has the power to declare war, provide for the common defense, raise armies, maintain a navy and make all laws “necessary and proper” to execute those powers. Thus, the Congress has vital oversight responsibilities for Executive Branch agencies involved in foreign affairs and national security, including the CIA and the intelligence community.
Secrecy Versus Accountability
Even in a constitutional republic, some secrecy in foreign affairs and defense is needed; but when secrecy and accountability clash, the presumption should be with accountability. Accountability should be especially preferred in the lower external threat environment of a post‐Cold War world.
The constitutional checks and balances at the core of the U.S. Constitution should not be undermined lightly. Unlike most other government entities, the intelligence agencies get only limited scrutiny from the media, the public, conflicting interest groups, and the courts. Furthermore, bureaucracies in national security can abuse the security cloak to avoid doing what Congress wants them to do. U.S. government secrets are not the exclusive property of the Executive Branch; congressional committees are entitled to, and also have a duty to, examine them to ensure that the secretive intelligence community is acting in the interest of the people it is supposed to be defending. Although the intelligence community uses the excuse that Congress is a leaking sieve, the Executive Branch is widely recognized as the origin of most leaks of secrets. For all of those reasons, congressional oversight by more than just the small (compared to the 45 Executive Branch entities involved in intelligence) and too easily co‐opted intelligence committees is vital.
In most cases, accountability does not run afoul of secrecy. In fact, according to Loch Johnson, an analyst who spent 13 years interviewing more than 500 intelligence officers, many intelligence officials–including former CIA directors‐concluded that recent improvements in accountability have not undermined the effectiveness of intelligence. Congressional staffs have the same security clearances possessed by Executive Branch personnel, and hearings closed to the public can be used if the information to be discussed is too sensitive for an open airing.
Even when accountability does clash with secrecy, the Congress must ask if the secrecy is warranted. Intelligence agencies develop a “culture” of secrecy that can sometimes be excessive. For example, for a short window of time after the Cold War ended, the amount of the U.S. annual intelligence budget was made public. Eventually, the intelligence bureaucracy reasserted itself and again covered it with a blanket of secrecy. Yet for many years, the actual value of the intelligence budget has been one of the worst kept secrets in Washington.
In recent decades, the trend has been to expand the circle of those responsible for overseeing intelligence activities. Formerly, the monitoring of CIA activities used to be confined to the chairman and ranking minority of the defense committees and one or two senior staff. In the 1970s, after congressional hearings exposing abuses in the intelligence community, the intelligence committees were formed. As the following examination of the House rules governing both the intelligence committee and congressional oversight of Executive Branch agencies will show, the number of committees that monitor intelligence and intelligence‐related activities and have access to products from those activities has increased. That expansion of oversight is even more appropriate now that the worldwide communist menace has collapsed.
House Rules on Legislative Oversight
To help guide House committees in performing oversight, the rules of the House delineate “special oversight functions” for various committees. In that part of the rules (3 (l)), the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence “shall review and study on a continuing basis laws, programs, and activities of the intelligence community and shall review and study on an exclusive basis the sources and methods” of agencies of the intelligence community, including the CIA (emphasis added). The phrase “on an exclusive basis” is very telling. Because the exclusive purview of the House intelligence committee is restricted to sources and methods, by implication, other committees can study laws, programs, and activities of the intelligence community.
That interpretation fits well with two other passages in the House rules that specifically govern the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Section 11(b)(3) states: