Intelligence Oversight in the 113th Congress

By April 8, 2015

During the last two years, the U.S. intelligence community has faced momentous challenges and experienced extraordinary upheaval, including the Snowden disclosures beginning in June 2013 and the release of a redacted summary of the Senate report on CIA interrogation practices last year.

Those episodes and others are reflected in a new report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence describing its oversight activities in the 113th Congress from January 2013 to January 2015.

Highlights of the new report include these:

**    Efforts to make U.S. intelligence agencies financially auditable are progressing slowly. “The CIA, NGA, NRO, and NSA conducted audits of their fiscal year 2014 financial statements,” but only the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) completed the process successfully. The CIA, NGA, and NSA “received disclaimers of opinion,” meaning that their financial statements could not be validated by the auditors. “While the DIA and ODNI did not conduct an audit, both plan to do so in 2015,” the report said.

**    Over-control of classified information continues to hamper information sharing even within the intelligence community, the report said. “The Committee has been concerned about the IC’s misapplication and overuse of the originator control marking (ORCON), which can impede the complete and timely dissemination of intelligence, as the agency that originates the information retains control over its dissemination…. Committee staff concluded that the use of the ORCON marking by certain IC elements had increased substantially, and that in some cases classification and control marking policies had been violated.”

**    Efforts to enlist the resources of the Government Accountability Office to strengthen intelligence oversight — a move long advocated by outside observers — are continuing, as the Committee encourages “open lines of communication and collaboration” between ODNI and GAO. The new report reveals that the classified annex of the FY 2014 authorization bill “directed the development of a specific GAO review to bolster intelligence oversight and reduce unnecessary fragmentation, overlap, and duplication.”

**    The report provides some new details of the three-volume structure of the still-classified CIA “torture report”. The first volume addressed the history of CIA’s interrogation program in 1,539 pages. The second volume devoted 1,858 pages to intelligence acquired through the program and CIA’s representations of its effectiveness. And the third volume, in 2,855 pages, focused on the detention and interrogation of 119 CIA detainees.

**    The Committee report said that “Financial intelligence has emerged as a significant are of IC activity, aiming to ‘follow the money’ of adversaries. It has proven to be a powerful tool confronting a range of challenging threats including terrorism, weapons proliferation, and narcotics trafficking.”

**    “The Committee also devoted significant time and attention to lethal operations against counterterrorism targets…. The Committee has worked with the Executive Branch to understand the legal basis for these operations.”  Likewise, “The Committee seeks to ensure that covert action programs are consistent with United States foreign policy goals, and are conducted in accordance with all applicable U.S. laws.”

**    With seeming condescension, the report noted that “The Committee annually receives hundreds of phone calls, facsimiles, mail, and email communications from self-identified whistleblowers on matters they believe to be of urgent concern. Committee staff reviewed and investigated these communications.” If these investigations yielded any actionable findings, they are not mentioned in the report.

**    The report pointedly observed that “Since 1994, the Committee has held annual open hearings to review the Intelligence Community’s assessment of the current and projected national security threats to the United States.” That twenty-year tradition came to an end this year when the new Chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, decided to hold the Committee’s annual threat briefing in closed session.

The new Senate Intelligence Committee report does not contain any note of critical self-examination or any suggestion that congressional oversight itself might have been complicit in the errors and excesses of intelligence agencies. Accordingly, the report does not address any potential changes that might be made to improve the intelligence oversight process.

Categories: Intelligence, Oversight