9/11 Commissioner: Congress shares blame for 12/25 intelligence failures

Poor congressional oversight contributed to failures in the national intelligence community, the 9/11 Commission vice-chairman said Thursday.

But Lee Hamilton stopped short of blaming lawmakers directly for the attempted Christmas Day attack on a commercial airliner.

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Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana, noted that Congress refused to follow a recommendation issued by the commission in 2004 calling on lawmakers to restructure their oversight of the intelligence community.
 
“We said in that report that our recommendations with regard to the Congress were the most important we made,” Hamilton told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “Well, Congress didn’t quite agree with that, obviously.”
 
Hamilton said the problem with poor oversight is “the intelligence community screws up now and then.”
 
“You’ve had all kinds of mistakes by the intelligence community in the last 50 years,” he said. “Every now and then you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at the problem.”
 
Hamilton said that only Congress can provide a proper independent assessment of the intelligence community’s performance.
 
The former Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, however, stopped short of blaming poor congressional oversight for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a jetliner in Detroit, an incident President Barack Obama has called a “screw-up.”
 
“You cannot, as a matter of causation, say because the Congress is not doing a good job of oversight on national security, homeland security, therefore the Detroit incident occurs,” Hamilton said. “The causation is not that close.”
 
A small bipartisan group of senators may seize on Hamilton’s comments in their effort to restructure intelligence spending by the Congress.
 
In June, Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others introduced a resolution to grant appropriations authority to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Effective congressional oversight is neither a partisan nor political issue,” Feingold said in a floor statement. “It is about ensuring that the intelligence community is keeping America safe, complying with the Constitution and laws of our country and using taxpayer dollars in an appropriate manner.
 
“There should be no more excuses or delays,” said Feingold.
 
The Appropriations Defense subcommittees control the budgets of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
 
Hamilton said the problem with that arrangement is that the members of the Defense subcommittees do not have enough time to devote to intelligence issues.
 
“They simply can’t get to it,” Hamilton said. “They’re dealing with two or three wars. They’re dealing with all the manpower and procurement problems of the [Department of Defense.]”
 
Hamilton noted the Defense Department budget is nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, while the budgets of the various intelligence agencies amounted to about $50 billion, as of five years ago.
 
Hamilton and lawmakers such as Feingold and McCain believe the intelligence agencies would be more responsive to the Senate and House Intelligence panels if those committees controlled their budgets.
 

One obstacle is that creating a separate intelligence-spending bill would require declassifying the top-line budget request for intelligence agencies.
 
Feingold and Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have worked on an amendment to declassify that information.
 
Hamilton said Congress also needs to streamline its oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.
 
“You’ve got 108 subcommittees and committees that deal with oversight of [the Department of Homeland Security.] That’s an absurdity. That’s a joke,” he said.
 
Government Executive magazine counted 86 congressional committees and subcommittees with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.
 
Homeland Security officials testified at more than 350 hearings and conducted more than 4,000 briefings for congressional committees during the 110th Congress.