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What good are the intelligence committees?

What good are the intelligence committees?
© Greg Nash

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) recently announced the formation two new subcommittees: one devoted to “cyber” and the other to “intelligence and special operations.” This divides a previous subcommittee overseeing both issues. The new ones appear logical and sensible for HASC.

The move was, no doubt, approved by former House intelligence committee member and current Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhite House readies for Chauvin verdict House GOP's McClain responds to Pelosi calling her 'that woman' GOP struggles to rein in nativism MORE (D-Calif.). The Speaker is sending a message — she is not happy with intelligence oversight and is looking for a work-around for better control.

Shifting oversight 

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The HASC intelligence subcommittee’s jurisdiction covers military intelligence, national intelligence, counter terrorism, and “sensitive operations.” Most agencies in the intelligence community are in the Defense Department, and those budgets devoted to tactical intelligence programs exceed $20 billion. The $61.9 billion national intelligence budget includes all the services, NSA, NRO, DIA, and NGA. All are in Defense (NRO is shared with the DNI.) Again, all quite sensible — until one considers that national intelligence also includes the CIA and the intelligence functions of State, Homeland Security, and FBI.

The main lingering question is the status of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) whose job it is to provide oversight to the IC and both its national and tactical programs and budgets. Exactly where does this leave them? Clearly, Speaker Pelosi no longer has faith in the current structure, if not necessarily the members.

Original intent

HPSCI — along with its Senate counterpart, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) — were set up in the mid-1970s to oversee an intelligence community after decades of admittedly lax congressional oversight. Over the last 40-plus years, HPSCI and SSCI have established a fairly good record of program and budget oversight and authorization. The HPSCI, while set up to be partisan as opposed to the bipartisan SSCI, reflecting its role in the “People’s House,” did a fine job of sharing such information with the HASC.

Politically, however, both intelligence committees have been roiled in recent years with “hot potato” political issues such as covert actions, enhanced interrogation techniques, and the 2016 presidential election interference charges. It’s put HPSCI in an extraordinarily hot spot because of its unique access to relevant intelligence and information.  Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he Hillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats hearing MORE (D-Calif.), the lead committee Democrat, led the first impeachment hearings against Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesFormer GOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer resigns Sunday shows preview: Russia, US exchange sanctions; tensions over policing rise; vaccination campaign continues Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE (R-Calif.), senior committee Republican, spearheaded the Republican response to the Russian election interference debate. Not the stuff of compromise and comity.

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Speaker Pelosi did not get and keep her position for so long without great political antennae. Even with its partisan composition, the HPSCI has performed effective oversight in past Congresses. She recognizes, it seems, the dysfunctional nature of the current HPSCI, and it appears she also does not want intelligence arising again as a partisan issue. She cannot do away with the HPSCI or determine who the Republican members are, but she can neuter the committee for the time being. The HASC’s new subcommittee gives her a way around the problem — at least for this Congress.

Mirroring the Senate?

HASC is imitating, to a degree, the existing intelligence oversight of the Senate. SSCI’s oversight is limited largely to the Director of Intelligence and the CIA. The annual authorization bill dealing with all national intelligence programs is not getting to the floor without Senate Armed Services Committee’s approval. And SASC already controls the military program. SSCI is on a short sequential referral rope. Can HPSCI be far behind?

A concern among long-time IC observers is the “militarization” of intelligence. It’s an old issue, but the HASC is additional reminder of its significance: National intelligence is about a broad variety of issues — not military related — from support to diplomacy to the broader issues entailed in Homeland Security intelligence, such as terrorism and pandemics, which are growing deeper as borders and boundaries are increasingly irrelevant.

Given the way Congress works, it is unlikely either SSCI or HPSCI are going to disappear. The Homeland Security Department remains the beneficiary of 100-plus oversight committees from the former 22 separate agencies that came together to create it. No Senate or House leader will take away a committee chairmanship — that is not how you keep your job.

Whither Congressional oversight?

But, the question remains as to what role SSCI and HPSCI will play going forward in intelligence and their perceived power with apparently diminished roles? They are now two of four authorizing committees with bleeding jurisdictions. And the comity that the Congress had originally hoped for in these committees is long gone — at least in the House.

In the final analysis, the intelligence committees are called “Select” because the Senate and House leadership select the members. But it is equally clear that Speaker Pelosi knows that bipartisanship is a bygone dream and the current intelligence oversight system is broken. The HASC move, with her approval, is the first step to wiring around a big, ugly long-term problem. How far it goes to diminish the HPSCI remains unclear.

Ronald Marks served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.