from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2006, Issue No. 118
November 13, 2006

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"I believe that the first order of business when we reorganize after the first of the year is congressional oversight," said Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) on November 10 after it became clear that Democrats would control the Senate and House in the next Congress.

"There simply has been no oversight in recent years," Sen. Reid said.

That of course is an exaggeration. Even on the narrow subject of government secrecy, for example, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) held multiple oversight hearings over the last two years that substantially enriched the public record.

But it is nevertheless true that congressional oversight atrophied under Republican leadership and that many fateful national policy decisions escaped scrutiny or challenge. That is expected to change as Democrats take charge in January.

New members and staff may need to learn or relearn the tools and techniques of oversight.

Beginning with the basics, the Congressional Research Service explains: "Congressional oversight refers to the review, monitoring, and supervision of federal agencies, programs, activities, and policy implementation."

More simply still: "Oversight is a way for Congress to check on, and check, the executive."

A 146 page manual prepared by CRS in 2004 describes the purposes and practices of congressional oversight in detail.

See "Congressional Oversight Manual," October 21, 2004:

See also "Congressional Oversight," updated January 3, 2006:


As Director of Central Intelligence from 1991-1993, Robert M. Gates, the nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense, grappled with questions of government secrecy more than almost any other agency head and helped to inaugurate a decade of increasing openness in intelligence and elsewhere.

Though he said the term "CIA openness" was "an oxymoron," Mr. Gates also expressed the view that the interests of the CIA would best be served by eliminating unnecessary restrictions on disclosure of Agency information.

He undertook several initiatives to increase openness in U.S. intelligence, some of which did not fail.

He directed the publication of unclassified and declassified articles from the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence; he began the process of declassifying records concerning major U.S. covert actions during the cold war; he signaled the CIA's willingness to cooperate in a government-wide program of declassifying records pertaining to the assassination of President Kennedy; and he initiated a program of declassification of National Intelligence Estimates on the former Soviet Union.

"Over the years, CIA's approach to dealing with the media and the public has been, at best, uneven," he said in a 1992 speech. It "took place against a backdrop of overall continuing and undifferentiated secrecy.... This is going to change."

Mr. Gates laid out his views on the subject and his new initiatives in "CIA and Openness," a speech to the Oklahoma Press Association, on February 21, 1992:

Most of Mr. Gates's changes in intelligence disclosure policy were incremental and did not fundamentally transform either internal or external communications. Many of the proposed changes were adopted half-heartedly or inconsistently, or later abandoned. Some were not implemented at all.

For example, at his 1991 confirmation hearing, Mr. Gates expressed support for the idea of declassifying the intelligence budget total, but he never did so.

An excellent proposal that he presented in his 1992 speech -- to "publish on an annual basis an index of all documents [CIA] has declassified" -- was never accomplished, though it remains a valuable and perfectly achievable objective, for CIA and other national security agencies.

Mr. Gates' halting efforts to increase openness were explicitly motivated by bureaucratic self-interest, but they were not less effective for that reason. To the contrary, he seemed to understand what few agency heads do: that openness and responsiveness to the public can advance the interests of an agency over the long run.

Mr. Gates has also displayed an appreciation for the role of congressional oversight that may yet serve him and the nation well.

"I sat in the Situation Room in secret meetings for nearly twenty years under five Presidents, and all I can say is that some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved had everyone present not known and expected hard questions, debate, and criticism from the Hill," he wrote in his 1996 memoir "From the Shadows" (p. 559).

"And when, on a few occasions, Congress was kept in the dark, and such schemes did proceed, it was nearly always to the lasting regret of the Presidents involved. Working with the Congress was never easy for Presidents, but then, under the Constitution, it wasn't supposed to be. I saw too many in the White House forget that."


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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