A Look Back at Congressional Oversight of Intelligence, 2011-2012

03.29.13 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Several nuggets of interest are presented in the latest biennial report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, summarizing the Committee’s oversight activities in the 112th Congress:

*    The Director of National Intelligence abruptly cancelled a multi-year effort to establish a single consolidated data center for the entire Intelligence Community a year or so ago, in favor of a migration to cloud computing.

*    Under criticism that the number of intelligence contractor personnel has grown too high, too fast, intelligence agencies have been cutting the number of contractors they employ or converting contractors to government employees.  But some of those agencies have continued to hire additional contractors at the same time, resulting in net growth in the size of the intelligence contractor workforce.

*    A written report on each covert action that is being carried out under a presidential finding is provided to the congressional committees every quarter.

The March 22 report also provides some fresh details of the long-awaited and still unreleased Committee study on CIA’s detention and interrogation program.  That 6,000 page study, which was completed in July 2012 and approved by the Committee in December 2012, is divided into three volumes, as described in the report:

“I. History and Operation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. This volume is divided chronologically into sections addressing the establishment, development, and evolution of the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

“II. Intelligence Acquired and CIA Representations on the Effectiveness of the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. This volume addresses the intelligence attributed to CIA detainees and the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, specifically focusing on CIA representations on how the CIA detention and interrogation program was operated and managed, as well as the effectiveness of the interrogation program. It includes sections on CIA representations to the Congress, the Department of Justice, and the media.”

“III. Detention and Interrogation of Detainees. This volume addresses the detention and interrogation of all known CIA detainees, from the program’s inception to its official end, on January 22, 2009, to include information on their capture, detention, interrogation, and conditions of confinement. It also includes extensive information on the CIA’s management, oversight, and day-to-day operation of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program,” according to the report’s description.

“I have read the first volume, which is 300 pages,” said CIA Director John O. Brennan at his February 7 confirmation hearing.  “There clearly were a number of things, many things, that I read in that report that were very concerning and disturbing to me, and ones that I would want to look into immediately, if I were to be confirmed as CIA Director.”

“It talked about mismanagement of the program, misrepresentations of the information, providing inaccurate information,” Mr. Brennan said then. “And it was rather damning in a lot of its language, as far as the nature of these activities that were carried out.”

[Clarification: Mr. Brennan’s reference to “the first volume” does not correspond to “Volume I” as described in the new Committee report. He was referring to the executive summary, findings, and conclusions of the report, which are bound separately from the body of the report.]

The Committee said it is awaiting comments on the study from the White House, the CIA and other executive branch agencies, and that it will then “discuss the public release of the Study.”

On February 15, 2013, Republicans who were members of the Committee in the last Congress formally filed dissenting comments opposing the study and its conclusions, the report said.

For its first couple of decades, the Senate Intelligence Committee held that “even secret activities must be as accountable to the public as possible,” as Sen. Daniel Inouye stated in the Committee’s first biennial report in 1977, and that “as much information as possible about intelligence activities should be made available to the public,” as Senators Richard Shelby and Bob Kerrey wrote in the 1999 version of the report.

But in the past decade, the Committee seems to have reconceptualized its relationship with the public.  It no longer promises to make “as much information as possible about intelligence activities” available to the public.  The notion that “secret activities” could be “accountable to the public” is now evidently considered a contradiction in terms (although release of the report on CIA interrogation practices, if it ever came to pass, would nullify and transcend that contradiction).

Today, as the latest report states, the Committee aims merely “to provide as much information as possible to the American public about its intelligence oversight activities.”  (Intelligence Oversight Steps Back from Public Accountability, Secrecy News, January 2, 2013).

Even within the narrowed horizons to which it has limited itself, however, the report presents a rather attenuated, “skim milk” account of the Committee’s work. Judging from the new report, intelligence oversight consists of frequent briefings, followed by numerous “evaluations” and “reviews.”

The report provides no indication of any conflict between the Committee and the intelligence agencies. Consequently, there are no significant victories (though the successful passage of four consecutive intelligence authorization bills is a notable achievement), and no meaningful defeats.

At the Brennan confirmation hearing on February 7, Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein said: “I have been calling, and others have been calling–the Vice Chairman and I–for increased transparency on the use of targeted force for over a year, including the circumstances in which such force is directed against U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike.”  And to its credit, the Committee conscientiously posed a pre-hearing question on classification reform to Mr. Brennan (which he deflected).

But the new report does not identify any such effort by Committee leadership to promote increased transparency on targeted killing during the past Congress.  It does not reference the failure to accomplish the declassification of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions, as the Committee had been promised in 2011.  Nor does the report address the abuse of classification authority or cite what the President called “the problem of overclassification” at all.