“Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken”

06.15.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Congressional oversight of intelligence is “dysfunctional,” according to a new report from the liberal Center for American Progress.

Some of the most urgent and fundamental policy issues facing the nation are matters of intelligence policy: What are the proper boundaries of domestic intelligence surveillance? What is the legal framework for interrogation of enemy detainees? Why haven’t the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission been effectively implemented?

But at a moment when intelligence policy is relatively high on the public agenda, the intelligence oversight committees in Congress seem to have little to contribute.

Even on specific intelligence questions such as the conduct of warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, the public can gain more insight from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has held several public hearings on the subject, than from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has held none.

The new Center for American Progress report provides a useful survey of the history of intelligence oversight and its current failings, along with a prescription for improvement.

“Correcting the problems that plague congressional oversight of intelligence will not require dramatic changes in the existing oversight structure. Congress has all the tools it needs to conduct its oversight responsibilities effectively….it is simply not using them. It must.”

See “No Mere Oversight: Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken,” June 13, 2006.

Some of the limitations of intelligence oversight are implicit in the structure of the process.

For an earlier (1992) self-critical account by a staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, see “Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: One Perspective” by Mary K. Sturtevant, American Intelligence Journal, Summer 1992.

A recent study (pdf) of Romania’s intelligence apparatus finds that “legislative control of intelligence in Romania can be estimated on a low-medium-high scale as ‘medium to high’.”

Furthermore, in Romania “the budgets of the intelligence agencies are transparent,” which is more than can be said about U.S. intelligence.

See “The Intelligence Phenomenon in a New Democratic Milieu: Romania — A Case Study” by Valentin Fernand Filip, Naval Postgraduate School, March 2006.