FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
May-August 2001
Volume 54, Number 3-4
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Front Page
The Central Deception of National Missile Defense
If Not NMD, Then What?
Sharing Missile Defense
US Government Fails to Lead on Small Arms
US Policy and the BWC Protocol
Intelligence Oversight Faces New Obstacles
Controversy over Wen Ho Lee Persists
FAS Status Report

Intelligence Oversight Faces New Obstacles

By Steven Aftergood

A change in the rules of the House of Representatives poses a new obstacle to congressional oversight of intelligence. That is what the House Government Reform Committee discovered when the CIA blocked one of its investigations.

Committee members were astonished and infuriated when the CIA refused to participate in a hearing they called to examine computer security at the Agency.

"Neither I nor any CIA representative will testify," wrote Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet bluntly on July 17. He noted that House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss "urged me not to testify." (A copy of Tenet's letter, obtained by FAS, is posted at http://www.fas.org/irp/news/2001/07/tenet.html.

The focus of the Committee's interest immediately shifted from computer security to a new topic: "Is the CIA's refusal to cooperate with Congressional inquiries a threat to effective oversight of the operations of the Federal Government?" That rather leading question was the title of an unusual hearing held before two subcommittees of the House Government Reform Committee.

The hearing was unusual because the established structures of intelligence oversight are rarely criticized within Congress itself, and Republican leaders rarely speak of the CIA with anger and indignation. But this time they did.

"The CIA is assaulting Congress's constitutional responsibility to oversee executive branch activities," said subcommittee chairman Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) "The CIA believes it is above that basic principle in our Constitution. We do not agree."

"Tell me why I shouldn't be outraged," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), his voice trembling. "When faced with persistent institutionalized [CIA] resistance to legitimate inquiries, we're compelled to reassert our authority."

FAS helped to publicize the conflict and reported on the underlying issues in our email newsletter Secrecy News.

To justify his refusal to testify, Mr. Tenet of the CIA cited a little-noticed amendment to the House Rules that was adopted last January 3. As a result of that amendment, "The Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is to have exclusive oversight responsibility over the sources and methods of the core intelligence agencies."

The upshot of this change is that congressional oversight of intelligence, which is already subject to far-reaching limitations, is being further diminished by restricting the oversight jurisdiction of most committees other than the Intelligence Committee.

The new House rule is "wholly inconsistent with the compromise which led to the creation of the Intelligence Committees," noted Morton H. Halperin, now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Halperin, who served in numerous national security functions in and out of government, played an influential role in the formulation of intelligence oversight policies in his former capacity as director of the Center for National Security Studies.

That original compromise permitted the establishment of the Intelligence Committee on condition that the existing jurisdiction of other committees would be fully preserved.

Specifically, the 1977 House Rule that established the House Intelligence Committee stated: "Nothing in this rule shall be construed as prohibiting or otherwise restricting the authority of any other committee to study and review any intelligence or intelligence-related activity to the extent that such activity directly affects a matter otherwise within the jurisdiction of such committee."

This rule remains in effect, even though it appears to be contradicted by the new amendment granting "exclusive" oversight of intelligence sources and methods to the Intelligence Committee.

As a practical matter, the new rule has already curtailed intelligence oversight in the House Government Reform Committee.

Members of the Government Reform Committee met with the Speaker of the House in late July to discuss the new challenge to their jurisdiction, a Committee spokesman said. He added that though there was no immediate resolution of the issue, the Committee intends to defend its interests vigorously.

The intrinsic limits on Congressional oversight of intelligence involving shortages of staff personnel, time, resources, and Members' attention as well as a lack of independent sources of information were described with unusual frankness by Mary K. Sturtevant in the Summer 1992 issue of the American Intelligence Journal, published by the National Military Intelligence Association.

Though dated in some respects, Ms. Sturtevant's article identifies the basic structural barriers to oversight that will only be exacerbated by the new House rule. See "Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: One Perspective" at http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/sturtevant.html.