Expanding intelligence oversight won’t be simple

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) points to a reporter after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
Greg Nash

According to news reports, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has announced his intention to provide all Senators with staff who are cleared to oversee America’s intelligence program. As a former CIA Senate liaison and intelligence counsel to two majority leaders, I think he is absolutely right in doing so — but it is a multi-dimensional Gordian knot: more complicated than you might think.

To be blunt, neither of the intelligence oversight committees — the House or the Senate — is really doing the kind of intrusive work that must be done to safeguard the people’s money and our national security interests. If anything, in my opinion, there is an increasingly erratic relationship between the committees and the overseen — either too cozy or too hostile.

The intelligence community (IC) is now nearly $86 billion — over three times the size of the late 1990s. This is the size of a Fortune 100 company with a publicly stated employment of over 200,000 people. It is one of the largest parts of the discretionary budget of the U.S. Yet, the numbers below the “top line” are classified, and members vote “blind,” trusting the committees do their job with multi-billion-dollar programs that certainly affect Defense Department activities, State Department diplomacy, and Homeland Security.

The IC has also become increasingly involved in high stakes political issues, ranging from sending a CIA director to negotiate with the Russians, to legally asserting itself in extensive intelligence gathering in the United States, to engaging in legally sanctioned attacks against our enemies overseas. And, the Trump administration has shown the extent the IC can become involved in national politics, as election oversight has become a part of its portfolio.

Not a cure-all 

The Senators, outside the committees, are about to find themselves in several situations that they may not be anticipating. While it will be interesting and — in my opinion — vital to give a fresh perspective, looking under the hood of intelligence, it will not be without difficulties.

The first is simply clearing staff to the security clearance level required. After 40 years, I can tell you it is an intrusive process.  But, you are handling information that can damage your country’s security. Thus, the price of glory.

The question will be: How many staff will want to submit to that process? And how many, as we have seen time and time again, may have trouble getting cleared through that process. Drug use, gambling problems, debt — these are common issues that stop people from getting their clearances.

Another issue is going to be one of access within the Senator’s staff. If one person alone is cleared, are they going to report to the Senator alone — without telling the rest of the Senator’s senior staff? Ever meet a legislative director or an administrative assistant that wants to be blindsided by an issue?

And, by the way, the information you receive is classified, and your Senator can’t talk about it on the floor or otherwise publicly. So, what are you going to say to the reporters and your constituents about what you have learned when they inevitably ask?

There will be the inevitable leaks of information by staff and Senators. That simply can’t be helped. But, I must say — in my experience — the vast majority of the leaks come from the executive side.

So, yes, I agree with Senate Majority Leader Schumer and his desire to provide his colleagues insight into how the people’s money is being spent in the vast American intelligence community.  However, make no mistake, it’s going to have its challenges.

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.

Tags Central Intelligence Agency Charles Schumer Congressional oversight Intelligence agencies security clearances United States Intelligence Community

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