Secrecy News

Report on Intelligence Oversight in the 110th Congress

Between 1978 and 2004, the annual intelligence authorization bill was the principal vehicle for the congressional intelligence committees to assert their influence and control over U.S. intelligence agencies, by modifying agency statutory authorities and imposing reporting requirements.

So the failure of Congress to pass an intelligence authorization bill since December 2004 is a significant handicap to the oversight committees and inevitably constitutes a diminution of their own authority and influence.

But even so, the intelligence committees have remained at the center of momentous intelligence policy debates, sometimes intervening in Administration policy and sometimes acquiescing in it.

A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee summarizes the Committee’s activities in the last Congress, in which it addressed a host of major and minor issues from the amendment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to the proposed expansion of the authorities of the Public Interest Declassification Board.

The 50-page report contains much that is familiar, along with some new details on staff study projects, “the poor status of IC financial management,” the Committee’s own difficulty in obtaining information from the Administration, and other topics.  See “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate, Covering the Period January 4, 2007 to January 2, 2009,” published March 2, 2009.

One qualitative change in intelligence oversight that is not mentioned in the new report is that the Committee no longer publishes intelligence agency answers to Questions for the Record that are submitted following the Committee’s annual intelligence threat hearing.

In the past, richly substantive agency answers to Committee questions would appear in the published hearing volume late in the year.  But now the intelligence agencies no longer provide, and the Committee no longer demands, unclassified answers to such questions.  The last time they were published was in the 2003 hearing volume on “Current and Projected Threats to the National Security of the United States” (pdf).

The significance of the continuing failure to pass an intelligence authorization bill was assessed in “Intelligence Authorization Legislation: Status and Challenges” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, February 24, 2009.

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