Intelligence Oversight in Retrospect

With one remarkable exception noted below, no one believes that congressional oversight of intelligence has served the nation well in recent years or that it has been adequate to the momentous demands of the time.

While the country has been roiled by debates over detention and interrogation policies, warrantless domestic intelligence surveillance, extraordinary rendition, the legality and efficacy of torture, and many other urgent and fundamental issues, the congressional intelligence committees have had surprisingly little to contribute.

Under the leadership of Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the committees could not even accomplish their baseline task of legislating an intelligence authorization bill during the past two years.

“The 109th Congress … became the first since the 94th Congress that did not pass an Intelligence Authorization Act,” observed a new report of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Fiscal year 2006 became the first since 1978 to not only begin but also to end without an intelligence authorization [act].”

Though the committees have been largely ineffective, they were not idle. The 36-page Senate committee report details the proposals that were debated, the legislative initiatives that were introduced, and the various hearings that were held, during the 109th Congress.

See Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence covering the period January 4, 2005 to December 8, 2006, Senate Report 110-57, April 26, 2007.

But from the perspective of the Central Intelligence Agency, the sharply diminished productivity of congressional oversight was just about optimal.

In particular, Senator Roberts’ leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee was “exemplary,” the CIA proclaimed in a March 19 news release.

Neither his colleagues nor his constituents found much reason to celebrate intelligence oversight during his tenure. But at a March 16 luncheon ceremony at CIA headquarters, Senator Roberts was awarded the Agency Seal Medal, which is given to people outside the Agency who have made significant contributions to the work of CIA.

Today, Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill (pdf) to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

“Guantanamo Bay has become a lightning rod for international condemnation,” Senator Feinstein said. “This has greatly damaged the nation’s credibility around the world. Rather than make the United States safer, the image projected by this facility puts us at greater risk. The time has come to close it down.”