National Military Intelligence Association
American Intelligence Journal
Summer 1992
reprinted by permission


by Mary Sturtevant, Senate Committee Staff

Mary K. Sturtevant is a member of the professional budget staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In this capacity she has responsibility for review the CIA Program (CIAP), and earlier reviewed the Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities (TIARA) program aggregation. She co-chaired the Committee Staff Soviet and East European Work Group during 1989-1991 and was a member of the staff Intelligence Reorganization Task Force during 1991-1992.

Ms. Sturtevant previously served as an analyst at CIA. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of California and received an M.A. in Soviet Studies and International Economics from the School of Advanced International Studies and the Johns Hopkins University.

This article provides a rare insight into the activities of the SSCI Committee professional staff.

As a former CIA employee who is now a three-year veteran of the Senate Intelligence Committee staff and currently in the position of reviewing CIA's budget, I am frequently asked by Intelligence Community personnel (somewhat as if they were asking, "And what is life like on the moon?") just what it is we do over here. Congressional oversight of intelligence is a concept that is bandied about, but with little agreement over what it means or how it is conducted. This confusion is understandable, because while I think "oversight" is an apt term in many ways, it does not cast much light on the actual work of the Committee and its staff. In this article, I plan to write in general terms about what I see to be some of the key characteristics of the Committee and its staff, then discuss more specifically the question of budget oversight (versus legislative oversight and other important Committee functions) as seen from the point of view of one who is in the trenches.

Unique Vantage Point

First, how is "oversight" an apt term of art?

Committee Members and staff literally "see over" the activities and programs of the entire National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP), which includes the budgets of CIA, NSA, DIA, and many of the intelligence activities of the Military Services, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State, the small intelligence programs of the Treasury and Energy Departments, and the foreign counterintelligence programs of FBI and the Department of Defense. This is a vantage point that few inside the Community have.

We have a broader perspective than most officials in the Intelligence Community get solely by virtue of their position (although some have it by virtue of their experience), as our Members and staff have "cross-over" access to activities and programs outside of the domain of the NFIP, which allows us to "see over" the firewall between so-called "national" and "tactical" intelligence programs as well as the related activities of non-intelligence agencies, such as "big" DoD, "big" State, "big" FBI and the host of what the Community refers to as "non-traditional" agencies -- such as DEA, Customs, or the office of the U.S. Trade Representative -- whose work affects U.S. intelligence in ways large and small.

Finally, the Committee's review of intelligence activities and programs "sees over" traditional party lines, as we boast the work of the Committee is accomplished on a largely bipartisan basis. The Senate Resolution creating a Select Committee on Intelligence in 1976 (S. Res. 400) established a one-Senator majority and ordained that the Vice Chairman act in the place of the Chairman in his (never yet her) absence -- characteristics unique to this among all committees in the United States Congress. The current Chairman often proudly cites the statistic that under his leadership we have never had a purely partisan vote out of this Committee.

The staff, too, is unique in its composition, with every Member designating one professional staff to represent his (again, never yet her) interests on the Committee. Unlike other Congressional committees, we have a single staff meeting led jointly by the Majority and Minority Staff Directors and our desks and staff commingle on the floor of the Committee staff space.

Effect on Work of Committee and Staff

How does this unique vantage point and perspective affect the work of the Committee? Here I would like to speak from the staff perspective only, and address the routine, staff-level oversight that is provided on a day-to-day basis. As someone with Executive Branch as well as private sector experience, I am very conscious of the many differences and few important similarities of what constitutes staff work here as opposed to staff work anywhere else.

Many Hatted. We lack a rigid hierarchy, a straightforward chain-of-command, or carefully-honed and bureaucratically-approved position descriptions. As a member of the so-called "core" staff that works full-time for the Committee "writ large," I work for the Majority Staff Director. But I also work for the Minority Director. As a member of the budget staff, I work for the Budget Director. I also work directly with "designees" on staffing issues of particular interest to their individual Senators. From time to time, I work with staff from other Committees on issues of joint cooperation.

The other generic type of Committee staff is the so-called "designee" -- one for each of the fifteen Members on the Committee. Obviously, designees work for their Senators. But they also work for the Minority and Majority Staff Directors. We frequently task-organize to staff arms control issues (we're doing the Intelligence Community's ability to monitor START, currently), confirmation hearings, questions of intelligence reorganization, as well as formal Committee hearings and on-the-record briefings on a variety of subjects -- whether in time of crisis or purely for informational purposes.

One practical effect of this organization, if it can be called such, is that all of us wear many hats and are adept at serving many masters simultaneously. Consequently, we learn to consider the views and objectives of multiple decisionmakers with contrasting interests in and attitudes toward intelligence. Those of us on the core staff and, in particular, those of us on the core staff who comprise the budget staff, learn to keep these contrasting requirements in mind, because so much of the negotiation, compromise and ultimate accommodation which is the hallmark of the Congressional process plays itself out in the budget mark-up process.

Outnumbered. Another effect of this staff composition is the apparent anomaly between an ostensibly large professional staff and the very small number of people who actually are assigned full-time responsibility for important Committee functions. For example, the full-time budget staff on our Committee currently consists of five core staff, including the budget director. Six core staff and three designees have at least part-time responsibility for reviewing various NFIP programs and one core staff reviews the Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities (TIARA) account for the Committee and develops the resulting set of annual recommendations this Committee makes to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over TIARA.

The House Intelligence Committee employs a somewhat small number of full-time budget staff. However, both Authorization Committees are robustly staffed compared to the Defense Subcommittees of the two Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate, where even smaller numbers of staff review the budget for both national and tactical intelligence programs as well as Defense Department special access programs. Although we occasionally hear the charge of "micromanagement," we always shake our heads in wonder that this could be so. In toto, we are perhaps one dozen or so full-time budget staff supporting the Intelligence Authorization and Appropriations Committees of both the House and the Senate reviewing activities conducted by tens of thousands of civilian and military personnel and programs valued in the multiple billions of dollars.

Alone. And we get little outside help in this task. Because of the classified nature of the programs we review, we are especially reliant on information provided by the very Community we hope to oversee. We lack alternative sources of information and points of view on intelligence budget requests, as there are few constituents with legitimate access to intelligence programs who wish to bring information forward to the Committees. The fact that these programs are highly classified imposes an extra burden on already busy Senators because they must, as a practical matter either come to the Committee staff or hearing spaces to review classified information, or read it in their offices in the presence of one of the Committee's security staff. They might also be orally briefed in their offices or during Committee hearings by their designees or other Committee staff, but frequently this is on the fly and without benefit of note-taking.

Also, the arcane, often technical subject matter keeps all but the most persistent senators from delving into the details of intelligence programs where I am reliably told the devil resides. The net result of this situation is that this handful of Congressional budget staff end up providing most of the detailed recommendations -- to eliminate, cut, increase, or even create programs -- that are decided by Committee Members during mark-up of the Intelligence Authorization bill. This fact is anathema to some senior intelligence officials, who don't understand the relationship of staff to Members under these trying circumstances. These same senior intelligence officials frequently fail to appreciate that staff act only as far as they believe they are reflecting the expressed desires of Members on the Committee or that staff make their recommendations with the knowledge that they adhere to this standard of ultimate Member review and decision.

Other Whines. Other aspects affecting budget staff review of intelligence programs include:

  • Negotiation, accommodation and, ultimately, compromise -- the foundation of our process -- take time to produce and do not crystallize until the "end game." We must therefore always bear in mind the range of actions we might be required to support.

  • Our access to information, and the time available to learn, are limited and we are constantly distracted by other duties (hearings to support, Members' questions to answer, formal correspondence to maintain, and the occasional crisis).

  • Our primary mechanisms for learning and making decisions about programs are briefings, review of the formal Congressional Budget Justification Book and a strange ritual of written questions and answers we call the QFR ("questions for the record") process. We normally can review a program only once a year, so we make up our minds quickly. The quality of that one contact per year (whether a briefing or a response to a QFR) is therefore enormously important.

  • For better or for worse, the way budgets are put together and presented to Congress places the small number of new and on-going initiatives -- those ideas most likely to reflect needed changes in direction -- under the microscope of Congressional attention, while the great majority of continuing, or "base," programs, go unscrutinized. We always struggle to get more base information in order to have a better chance of juggling new priorities against old ones.

    Doing What We Do Best

    After this litany of gripes it may seem we should fold up our tents and go home. Despite all of these complicating factors, I believe we do perform an effective job of oversight. And that is because of a litany of benefits we receive from that characteristic I described at the beginning of this article -- a unique vantage point and perspective.

    Seams. The former Budget Director of this Committee staff used to counsel me, "Look at the seams between budgets," and I have found that advice to be very sound. Seams are the spaces between agency budgets where duplication can occur or where needed initiatives somehow get overlooked. Unlike most Intelligence Community officials, we can look at individual programs in one budget with an appreciation of what other agencies are doing. Certain activities are ripe for this "seam" analysis: airborne reconnaissance, for one, as at least four military services, four national intelligence organizations, and several law enforcement entities (working overseas) have programs to develop, produce, or field various types of reconnaissance sensors and aircraft. Looking at the seams between programs, we are able to observe and comment on concurrent research and development efforts or the lack of any development at all, or to note the failure to coordinate, much less collaborate, on projects of mutual interest, and other such evils. It is not by accident that a favorite budget staff question to a program manager in one agency is whether he/she is aware of a similar program in another agency. We get an affirmative answer fewer times than you would perhaps believe.

    Exposure. We also benefit from the very fact that we are exposed to so much. This means that we can make judgments fairly quickly on whether a new initiative makes sense in the context of everything else we know is going on in the Community. Again, what looks to a program manager like arbitrary and irrational action on the part of "some staffer" not to recommend funding for his/her initiative is, I would argue, a deliberate and calculated decision on the part of that same staffer that this program does not contribute sufficient value added when compared to other projects in the Community.

    Flexibility. We are not bound to "defend the President's Budget," so we can change directions much more quickly than can a Community wrapped around the axle of an eighteen-month budget development cycle. By the time a budget makes its way to our door -- especially in these days of rapid change -- it contains justifications for activities and programs that probably would not be there if decided upon today. These become a ready source of reductions. On the other hand, because we mark-up this eighteen-month old budget with today's knowledge, we can redirect efforts toward problems and issues that more accurately reflect future requirements. Too, although there is safety in numbers, there are also cumbersome procedures and layers of bureaucracy. We deal directly with decisionmakers and can more immediately respond to their particular concerns and promote their interests. I think, too, our review benefits from a broader range of backgrounds and experience on the part of both Members and staff than Community managers tend to have by virtue of the nature of professional development tracks in intelligence agencies.

    All of these factors mean we bring "fresh" eyes to intelligence activities and programs and -- in spite of the ups and downs -- I believe strongly that this oversight process benefits U.S. intelligence.