Improving Congress’s oversight of the intelligence community

The federal government spent more than $70 billion last year on the Intelligence Community. Are these dollars well spent? Hard to tell. With the pervasive secrecy surrounding its operations, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the money was spent protecting our national security or invading our privacy.

The reality is that we must look to Congress for the answer—a Congress whose intelligence oversight budget is a pittance, and whose intelligence committees are so disjointed that the 9/11 Commission called for wholesale reform. As the first branch of government, Congress is responsible for legislation and oversight, powers that have been largely relinquished to an over-powerful and under-responsive Executive Branch.

{mosads}Oversight from the House of Representatives is in particular need of attention. In September 2016, 33 organizations across the political spectrum asked Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to adopt reforms to modernize the House’s intelligence oversight. Formed in the 1970s after a series of scandals—including the CIA assassination of foreign leaders, the spying on Members of Congress by intelligence agencies, and the interference in domestic politics—the House Intelligence Committee has the power to do just that.

And yet few have full confidence in the ability of the House Intelligence Committee to perform properly. The committee does not have the necessary resources to do its job. Last year the Committee had a 33-person staff and a $3.8 million dollar budget (the Intelligence Community’s budget is 18,421 times larger). By comparison, more than 2.8 million people had access to classified information in 2015, including 1.2 million at the top secret level.

So it’s not surprising that additional measures are being considered to make up the difference. Members of Congress are calling for a separate, select committee to investigate the claims of Russian hacking of the U.S. election. Many in Congress wish to establish an independent encryption commission. And though the Intelligence Community has had many successes, its failures—such as not foreseeing the Arab Spring, misleading Congress about the scope and nature of the threat of terrorism, and not thwarting foreign interference in U.S. elections—would be fewer if the House Intelligence Committee was better positioned to keep an eye on the myriad programs and employees that populate our national security bureaucracy.

In addition, the intelligence community, whose leadership recently refused to brief its members on the election hacking scandal, does not treat the congressional Committee seriously. Despite the protests of the Committee Chairman Devin Nunes who wrote, “The legislative branch is constitutionally vested with oversight responsibility of executive branch agencies, which are obligated to comply with our requests,” the decision was not reversed and the complaints were ignored, seemingly without consequence.

Technological changes have created new threats and opportunities, and the challenge of understanding the craft and actions of our intelligence officials has become increasingly complex. Unfortunately, the widespread perception today is that Congress is no longer willing or able to fulfill its original goal of reforming and overseeing the intelligence bureaucracies.

While much should be done, there is an obvious place to start: Committee members should have a dedicated staffer—with the necessary clearances—working on intelligence matters. This simple idea already is in place in the Senate, where individual members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have the benefit of committee staff (whose loyalties are to the committee’s leadership) and a personal staffer who works at that member’s direction. It would have the additional benefit of significantly expanding the number of House staffers dedicated to overseeing intelligence matters. The current system stymies the agency of individual members of Congress, reduces transparency, and decreases the likelihood that whistleblowers will bring concerns to the attention of key members. Expanding oversight duties to include the perspectives of all committee Members will mitigate these risks.

To their credit, eight members of the House Intelligence Committee have recognized this shortfall, signing a letter in support of dedicated intelligence staffers. The support of a few more members is needed to reach a committee majority, and the rest of the House too must be persuaded. While much more should be done, as was discussed in a recent White Paper sponsored by a variety of stakeholders, this easy first step should be seriously considered.

If Congress does not effectively oversee this critical component of national security, they will continue to play catch-up when the intelligence community falters. Congress provides the public’s only view into the most secretive aspects of the national security bureaucracy, and it’s time for Americans to empower and enable Congress to fulfill this solemn and irreplaceable duty to oversee it.

Phillip Lohaus is a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Mandy Smithberger is Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, and Daniel Schuman is Policy Director at Demand Progress

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Paul Ryan

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video