The field of intelligence operations in America is in many ways a paradoxical endeavor. This is due to our unique constitutional governance and accepted individual rights and liberties. This places the intelligence community (IC) in an awkward position holding the responsibility to ensure national safety through intelligence gathering, but also honoring citizen’s legal right to privacy.
Oversight of the IC was relatively non-existent until the 1940s, but even then didn’t actually conduct a legitimate role until late 1974. Due to public exposure of illegal and unethical practice by the IC, acts were passed and investigations launched. These eventually resulted in the creation of the House Intelligence Oversight Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (Riley & Schneider, 2010). Since that time there have been ebbs and flows in the amount of oversight and leniency toward the IC. It could arguably be said the current leniency given to the IC is broader than it has been in recent history. I attribute this to both a fear of domestic terrorism and a government less concerned with individual rights or Constitutional restraint.
Today there are three primary ways in which Congress exerts a measure of control over the IC. They are as follows:
- Budget Control – Control over funding provides Congress a great amount of leverage and forces the IC’s hand to provide a certain amount of cooperation lest they lose funding.
- Legislative Control – The power and responsibility of legislation authority allow Congress to create legal left and right limits for the IC. Additionally, Congress is charged with ensuring the IC adheres to those limits.
- Declassification Authority- Congress has the ability to declassify information regardless of executive opposition. Though this power has not yet been utilized it can definitely provide a great amount of leverage for Congress. For instance, if there was a point of contention on a project that could not be resolved Congress could essentially burn the project to put the issue to bed.
As you can see these three control measures provides Congress with a great deal of influential power over the IC.
In the article “Congressional oversight of US Intelligence” there are a few good recommendations made to which the oversight effort could benefit. Of those reccomended one that I consider the most important and challenging is overcoming electoral incentive (Riley & Schneider, 2010). Beyond the author’s recommendations, I would suggest that a broad term limit for Congressman, in general, would greatly assist in this effort, as well as many others found in our current setup.
Another solution I would recommend is the implementation of an employed panel (non-elected) that have a full-time specific job over overseeing the IC as a legal and quality control effort. As I would envision it this panel would file quarterly reports to Congress of findings as well as emergency reports when a major concern is revealed. It would be ideal to keep this group as outsiders with full access much like most standardization programs are run.
An additional suggestion for improvement to the oversight process would be an “efficacy testing and standard matrix”. The overall intent of this would be to ensure that the questionable measures of the collection are scrutinized for effectiveness. It would be a challenging test and standard to create, but I believe it could be possible. Essentially collection efforts would be evaluated as to whether they had a quantifiable reduction in terrorist activity compared with overall utilization. A certain percentage would be established and if the program method does not meet the standard it would no longer be utilized. I envision this utilized on various questionable programs that specifically target US citizen activities (e.g. NSA’s PRISM Program) (Franceschi-Bicchierai, 2014). While I don’t believe this is a single solution I do believe it would provide a more objective basis and thereby force a certain level of restraint with such activities.
One final note on the matter, I believe it is important that breaches of trust are dealt with harshly. Ultimately the goal of the IC is to protect the Nation’s interest and this Nation exists as it does by and largely due to the Constitution. Every servant is sworn to that first and foremost, and I believe that violations of that oath should have extremely harsh consequences. I understand the temptation by those close to the stone in the belief that it’s for the greater good, or they know better than the average citizen (and often they do), however, it is the citizen that ultimately employs them. I personally believe that one of the Nation’s greatest threats is government overreach. While a terrorist attack may leave thousands dead the Nation lives on, however, once we stray too far from our Constitutional parameters the Nation will only be America by namesake.
I’d love to read your thoughts on these solutions or others you consider viable.
Franceschi-Bicchierai, L. (2014, June 05). The 10 Biggest Revelations From Edward Snowden’s Leaks. Retrieved November 12, 2016, from Mashable: http://mashable.com/2014/06/05/edward-snowden-revelations/#8ekJ9hNlikqI
Riley, J., & Schneider, M. K. (2010). Congressional Oversight of U.S. Intelligence. In K. Logan, Homeland Security and Intelligence (pp. 172-183). Santa Barbara: Praeger.