Rebalance of power on intelligence needed on Capitol Hill, experts say

That was the consensus among several former senior congressional staffers who helped manage that delicate balance on Capitol Hill over the past few decades. 

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While noting equality between the legislative and executive branches on intelligence matters is not realistic, a "balance is needed," according to Suzanne Spaulding. 

Spaulding, former general council for the Senate Intelligence Committee and former minority director for the House intelligence panel, said that balance has been missing in both committees in recent years. 

Lawmakers on both panels needed "to strive for a sufficient balance of power" with the White House on matters of intelligence, according to Spaulding. 

But since the perceived lack of oversight on the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, Congress has increasingly deferred to the federal courts and the administration to weigh in on such issues, former Congressional Research Service (CRS) staffer Louis Fisher said. 

Fisher, who served as the research director for the House Iran-Contra Committee during his time with the CRS, said part of that deference has come from the lack of institutional knowledge of the intelligence agencies on the committees. 

In past years, former heads of the intelligence committees would be engaged in the details of U.S. intelligence operations and understand the context of past operations in order to press administration officials on the necessity of those operations, Fisher explained. 

"I'm not sure that could happen today," he said. 

That said, Congress's position as a voice of authority and a source of credibility on intelligence matters, compared to its oversight actions taken during the Iran-Contra affair and other watershed moments, has been "weakened," Spaulding said. 

Both spoke during a CIA-sponsored symposium on intelligence matters at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

One example of that increased authority by the White House on intelligence matters is the dramatic rise of unmanned drone strikes against suspected terrorist across the globe. 

The Obama administration again came under fire for its aggressive use of armed aerial drones in recent months, ordering those missions under a newly expanded authority governing the highly-controversial counterterrorism tactic.

That new authority has allowed American drones operated by U.S. military and intelligence officers to hammer away at suspected terror targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen with increased accuracy and lethality in recent weeks.

But critics argue the expanded drone strike policy includes loopholes allowing the White House to claim drops in collateral damage when in reality the strikes are no safer to civilians than before. 

While the White House's expansion of the drone campaign can be interpreted as an example where Congress has taken a back seat to the administration's goals, the relationship between the two branches is getting better, another former high-ranking staffer said. 

The "timeliness and sufficiency" of the information conveyed to Capitol Hill from the intelligence community has been a constant source of friction between lawmakers and the administration, Michael Sheehy said during the same event. 

As staff director for the House Intelligence Committee and later national security adviser for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sheehy has had a front-row seat to the analytical sparring matches between members of the intelligence community and lawmakers. 

He noted that the burden on intelligence officials regarding sharing sensitive information with lawmakers is too often that information can be used as political fodder, particularly when the intelligence runs counter to an administration's goals. 

That said, "Congress needs that [intelligence] to do its job," according to Sheehy, who said that in certain situations, Capitol Hill can be a "strong advocate" for intelligence issues while maintaining its oversight role. 

But to do that, lawmakers need access to information, he said. That access will help reverse the current imbalance between lawmakers and the White House, Sheehy added. 

"Not that perfection will be achieved" in that relationship, but the progress between the two governmental bodies is certainly a good sign, he said.