A Candid Look at the Senate Intelligence Committee

06.18.13 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Much of the continuing controversy over intelligence surveillance policy revolves around whether the sweeping collection of U.S. telephone data by intelligence agencies violates constitutional norms.  But it is also an occasion to assess the quality of intelligence oversight, and to review the performance of oversight mechanisms in representing the public and defending its interests.

So it was disappointing to read that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has blocked its former general counsel, Vicki Divoll, from speaking to Talking Points Memo (TPM) on the record about how the Committee functions.

“TPM was reporting a story based on interviews with members of Congress and current and former aides about the successes and pitfalls of intelligence oversight on Capitol Hill,” wrote Brian Beutler of TPM DC.

“The goal was to answer some basic questions for readers: How does a classified process differ from public oversight? What challenges do the combination of government secrecy, classified briefings, and strict committee protocols present to legislators trying to control the nation’s sprawling intelligence apparatus?”

A Committee spokesman told TPM that this kind of information was “committee sensitive” and that therefore Ms. Divoll’s remarks on the subject should not be made public.  See “Senate Intel Committee Blocks Former Staffer From Talking To Press About Oversight Process,” June 18.

In an earlier era — twenty years ago — it was still possible for a staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to speak candidly in public about the strengths and weaknesses of intelligence oversight.

The intelligence oversight process is constrained by size, time, personnel and secrecy, wrote Mary K. Sturtevant in 1992, when she was a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

“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.”

“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.”

And so forth.  While much has changed in intelligence and oversight in the past twenty years, some of the enduring difficulties of overseeing secret government operations are frankly acknowledged in Ms. Sturtevant’s article.  See “Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: One Perspective,” American Intelligence Journal, Summer 1992 (posted with permission of the publisher).

One problematic aspect of congressional oversight of intelligence that is not often addressed is the heavy, disproportionate representation of former intelligence community employees (like Ms. Sturtevant and Ms. Divoll) among the professional staff of the oversight committees.

On one hand, this is perfectly understandable since such former intelligence employees bring much-needed subject matter expertise to the task of oversight, along with an existing security clearance.  On the other hand, they may also possess a narrow, compliant perspective and a set of personal interests that limit their effectiveness, particularly if they ever hope to return to the ranks of their former employers.  Meanwhile, it is hard to think of an intelligence committee staff member who joined the committee following a career devoted to civil liberties, government accountability or personal privacy.

A 2006 report from the Center for American Progress said Congress had failed in its duty to perform effective oversight of intelligence, and that the oversight function needed to be fixed.  See “No Mere Oversight: Congressional Oversight of Intelligence is Broken” by Denis McDonough, Mara Rudman and Peter Rundlet, June 13, 2006.

The lead author of that report, Mr. McDonough, now serves as the White House Chief of Staff.