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Congress' Poor Oversight of Intelligence Is Longstanding Problem

This op-ed, addressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's charge that the CIA and the Bush Administration misled Congress in its briefings about interrogations of terrorist suspects, was published recently by NationalJournal.com.

In 2007 the Senate Intelligence Committee even held a hearing on itself and how oversight could be improved.

Amy Zegart is an associate professor of public policy at the School of Public Affairs, a Senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

There's a "Casablanca" quality to the Pelosi-CIA dustup: Suddenly, legislators are shocked, shocked! that Congress lacks strong oversight powers in intelligence. At her press conference last week, Speaker Pelosi seemed to suggest that intelligence oversight had become both hapless and hopeless in the Bush Administration:

"Well, they [the Bush administration] didn't tell us everything that they were doing. And the fact is that anything we would say doesn't matter anyway. We had to change the majority in Congress, we had to get a new president to change the policy. And that's what we have done."

When the only workable intelligence oversight mechanism is ousting partisan opponents, we are all in trouble.

So just who created this terrible, dysfunctional system?

Congress.

To be sure, the Bush Administration was not forthcoming about its most sensitive and controversial intelligence programs, and mistrust between the executive branch and Congress reached poisonous levels. But congressional oversight deficiencies long predate 9/11 or Dick Cheney's delusions about a Saddam-al Qaeda conspiracy.

Congressional oversight of intelligence has never been very strong. For the first 30 years of the CIA's life, "oversight" consisted of a few legislators not asking questions because they preferred not to hear the answers. Since the Church Committee investigation of the 1970s, oversight has gotten much more routinized, but not necessarily better. Today, there are permanent intelligence committees, regular hearings, staff investigations, and loads of reporting requirements. But the intelligence committees have been hindered by three major weaknesses: They lack the power of the purse; for years they imposed term limits which robbed the committees of expertise, and; legislators always get rewarded more for airing the intelligence community's dirty laundry than cleaning it.
 
These deficiencies have proven exceptionally difficult to fix. Between 1991 and 2001, a dozen major bipartisan reports issued hundreds of intelligence reform recommendations. Chief among them: improving congressional oversight. But not a single congressional reform got implemented before 9/11, and Congress isn't doing much better today. In 2007 the Senate Intelligence Committee even held a hearing on itself and how oversight could be improved. I testified at that hearing and will never forget what Rep. Lee Hamilton — a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission — told the committee. Wagging his finger at the senators, Hamilton warned both Democrats and Republicans that history would judge them:

"To me, the strong point simply is that the Senate of the United States and the House of the United States is not doing its job. And because you're not doing the job, the country is not as safe as it ought to be .... Now, this is not a trivial matter. You're not dealing with the jurisdiction of the Education Committee, where it doesn't make very much difference, frankly, who has the control of it. You're dealing here with the national security of the United States, and the Senate and the House ought to have the deep-down feeling that we've got to get this thing right."

Hamilton and fellow 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer were asked what grade they would give Congress for improving intelligence oversight since 9/11. Their answer: D+.

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