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Policy Solution

Strengthening Intelligence Oversight

U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies are embroiled in scan­dal. Secret CIA torture programs and mass surveil­lance by the NSA are just two examples of the abuse of intel­li­gence author­ity and the fail­ure of current over­sight struc­tures in the last year.

Today, on the 40th anniversary of the form­a­tion of the Church Commit­tee, 17 former Church Commit­tee staff members have put forward key recom­mend­a­tions to help Congress bring intel­li­gence activ­it­ies and over­sight in line with the law and with Amer­ican values.


AnchorBy Former Vice Pres­id­ent Walter F. Mondale & Senator Gary Hart, former members of the Church Commit­tee

Forty years ago, Congress estab­lished a select invest­ig­at­ive commit­tee charged with conduct­ing a thor­ough, bipar­tisan exam­in­a­tion of our govern­ment’s secret intel­li­gence oper­a­tions under­taken over the course of several pres­id­en­tial admin­is­tra­tions. It repres­en­ted the first time our nation — or any nation to our know­ledge is — opened its national secur­ity appar­atus to such inde­pend­ent and public scru­tiny. We are honored to have served on that Commit­tee, under the skilled lead­er­ship of the late Senat­ors Frank Church and John Tower and with the support of a talen­ted and dedic­ated staff.

Our work was conduc­ted with the recog­ni­tion that effect­ive intel­li­gence capab­il­it­ies are essen­tial to ensur­ing our national secur­ity and devel­op­ing sound foreign policies. But these oper­a­tions, like all govern­ment activ­it­ies, must comply with the law. We concluded that much of the error and abuse we found resul­ted from excess­ive secrecy that forfeited the strengths of our consti­tu­tional system: the value added by the input of informed over­seers in Congress and the courts, and the public support earned through demo­cratic account­ab­il­ity.

Today, intel­li­gence activ­it­ies are back in the news, too often for the wrong reas­ons. Many Amer­ic­ans are ques­tion­ing whether the struc­tural reforms developed as a result of the Church Commit­tee invest­ig­a­tion remain suffi­cient to ensure intel­li­gence activ­it­ies are prop­erly tailored to meet their object­ives without infringing on indi­vidual rights or betray­ing Amer­ican values.

Seven­teen Church Commit­tee staff members have assembled once again to produce this insight­ful report call­ing for a compre­hens­ive re-eval­u­ation of our systems of intel­li­gence over­sight. Their effort could not be more crit­ical or timely. The scope and complex­ity of our intel­li­gence oper­a­tions has grown expo­nen­tially, and recent revel­a­tions about mass surveil­lance programs and the abuse of detain­ees in U.S. custody confirm that exist­ing controls are not as effect­ive as they need to be.

This 40th anniversary of the form­a­tion of the Church Commit­tee provides an oppor­tun­ity to reas­sert our Founders’ confid­ence that our national secur­ity can be most effect­ively main­tained with robust systems of demo­cratic account­ab­il­ity. We applaud the efforts of the Church Commit­tee staff members for their continu­ing contri­bu­tion to this crit­ical national debate.


AnchorThe new recom­mend­a­tions set forth by 17 former Church Commit­tee staff members can guide an invest­ig­a­tion of intel­li­gence abuse and over­sight fail­ure.

Key recom­mend­a­tions for steps Congress should take include:

  • Assess­ing whether Congress has the appro­pri­ate resources to main­tain effect­ive over­sight of intel­li­gence activ­it­ies. For example, does Congress have staff and resources to eval­u­ate reports from over­sight bodies such as Inspect­ors General, the Congres­sional Research Service, the Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, and outside interest groups?Eval­u­ate whether the intel­li­gence community is using its new resources and author­it­ies respons­ibly and effect­ively.
  • Assess­ing whether current intel­li­gence commit­tee struc­tures optim­izes intel­li­gence over­sight or whether struc­tural changes should be made.
  • Examin­ing whether commit­tees are able to get the inform­a­tion neces­sary to prop­erly guide intel­li­gence activ­it­ies and inform the rest of Congress, and the public, so that sound policies can be enacted and sustained.
  • Modi­fy­ing the FISA process to make it more trans­par­ent and account­able and strength­en­ing the courts’ abil­ity to hear and resolve consti­tu­tional chal­lenges to intel­li­gence prac­tices.
  • Reas­sess­ing the govern­ment’s aggress­ive foreign intel­li­gence surveil­lance prac­tices, which jeop­ard­ize the United States’ role as a leader in promot­ing human rights and demo­cracy in the inter­na­tional community.
  • Eval­u­at­ing how intel­li­gence agen­cies are currently exploit­ing exist­ing tech­no­lo­gies, anti­cip­at­ing how devel­op­ing tech­no­lo­gies might neces­sit­ate addi­tional regu­la­tion and scru­tiny, and ensure they have the tech­nical expert­ise to perform these func­tions.
  • Adopt­ing meas­ures to reduce over­clas­si­fic­a­tion, which squanders intel­li­gence resources, impedes inform­a­tion shar­ing, denies the public access to inform­a­tion it can use to better under­stand threats, and promotes leaks by erod­ing respect for the clas­si­fic­a­tion system.
  • Devel­op­ing metrics to eval­u­ate the effect­ive­ness of national secur­ity policies and programs.