December 17, 2014

Fixing Congressional Oversight of National Security

By Daniel Schuman

CIAMembers of Congress talk a lot about improving oversight of national security, but most do not do much to make it better. Just recently, the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, gave a speech where he said something remarkable. He spoke about the struggle Congress had with gathering information from the CIA for a report on its use of torture. "This study is … the story of the breakdown in our system of governance…. One of the profound ways that breakdown happened was through the active subversion of meaningful congressional oversight."

That's right: "active subversion of meaningful congressional oversight." How did the CIA do that? It "refused" to provide him information. Its briefings "provided little or no insight" and "were intended only to provide cover for the administration and the CIA." And on it goes. “The more the committee dug, the more the committee found, and the results we uncovered are both shocking and deeply troubling.” Senator Rockefeller is not entirely trustworthy on this subject, as he is a great cheerleader of the intelligence community, so it says a lot when he says the system is broken.

In Congress, there is no meaningful oversight of the intelligence community. To address this problem, we and a coalition of 50+ organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum today are releasing a letter and white paper with recommendations on how the House of Representatives can start to make improvements. The problems are shocking.

Members of Congress rely on staff to do a lot of work, but most staff working on intelligence issues are not permitted to hold the necessary security clearances to do their jobs. Sometimes, the Intelligence Committee in the House intercepts mail from the executive branch addressed to all members of Congress. That same committee sits on unclassified reports, refusing to make them available to the public. Briefings provided by the intelligence community are announced for inconvenient times, do not provide enough detailed information, and members of Congress often are not allowed to take notes on what was said.

The executive branch has 666,000 employees with top secret/SCI clearance and 541,000 contractors with top secret/SCI clearance, and yet often times members of Congress are not permitted to talk with one another about their briefings. Members of Congress are not allowed to publicly speak about—and staff may not read—classified information that has been published in the newspaper or on the internet. This makes no sense for the deliberative body that was designed as a check on executive power.

While not a panacea, our recommendations are a good start. Our recommendations empower every representative to engage in oversight. They modernize the House Intelligence Committee so it is responsive to the House of Representatives and the public. And they call for the establishment of an independent review of intelligence community activities since 9/11.

When the House convenes in January, it should reform its rules to empower meaningful oversight of national security. Congress must be more than a checkbox, it must be a check on executive power.

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