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.
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.
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.