Eight years after 9/11, the least reformed part of our intelligence establishment is not the CIA or the FBI. It’s Congress. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission called congressional oversight of intelligence “dysfunctional.” In 2007 former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton pleaded with the Senate Intelligence Committee to do something. And last May, when Speaker Pelosi accused the CIA of misleading her, she also declared that oversight had become so feckless, the only way to change Bush Administration intelligence policies was to oust Republicans at the polls.
This is not good.
I’m writing a book on intelligence oversight. What I’ve found so far is that robust oversight requires two things: expertise (you have to know something to ask the right questions) and power over the purse (As Hamilton said, the golden rule of oversight is He Who Owns the Gold Makes the Rules). Congress has denied itself both in intelligence. For years.
–The House STILL imposes term limits on the Intelligence Committee but almost nowhere else. The result: legislators get kicked off the committee just when they start to know what they’re doing. (The Senate had term limits for nearly 30 years, ending them only in 2005) The expertise gap between intelligence and other committees is striking. Typically a third of Armed Services Committee members serve 10 years or more on the committee, and a third have prior military experience. In intelligence only 5% serve 10 years or more. And only 2 of today’s 535 legislators have ever worked in an intelligence agency. These are the people we entrust to keep intelligence agencies working well and out of trouble. Scared yet?
–Both the House and Senate have repeatedly rejected proposals before and after 9/11 to give the Intelligence Committees appropriations powers. Instead, the intelligence budgetary system is divided: Intelligence Committees can threaten to punish recalcitrant agencies with budget cuts, but Appropriations Committees must deliver. History has shown that they don’t, and that savvy intelligence agencies game the system — bypassing the Intelligence Committees and getting their pet projects funded by the appropriators instead. One congressional staffer recently told me that the Senate Intelligence Committee has tried to kill three expensive and ineffective satellite programs — on a bipartisan basis — for years. They’ve finally terminated 2 of them, but all were funded far longer than they should have. We’re talking billions of dollars.
The CIA and FBI have still have many weaknesses. But make no mistake: they are trying mightily. Congress is not.