The Gap in Intelligence Oversight
The uproar concerning President Bush's admission that he authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct certain electronic surveillance affecting people in the United States is a wake-up call for intensive congressional oversight of intelligence activities.
Review of intelligence-gathering and analysis is a critical responsibility of the legislative branch. But as the independent Sept. 11 commission concluded, "so long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need." As one who served on the House intelligence committee for 10 years and who continues to serve in a non-voting capacity, I know that the commission's concerns are justified and require immediate action.
Congress is not an afterthought in assessing intelligence activities; federal law requires that it be kept informed of all such activities. But despite that clear statutory directive, the Bush administration consistently acts as though it alone owns intelligence information.
The products of our intelligence agencies belong to the government, of which Congress is an equal branch. The executive branch operates intelligence programs and activities, and Congress oversees and pays for them -- and thus has a responsibility to ensure that they are effective and carried out in a manner consistent with the Constitution, our laws and our values. That's why the intelligence committees were created. But as the Sept. 11 commission noted, the way intelligence information is conveyed to Congress and the way Congress operates make rigorous oversight impossible.
The executive branch provides notice of some especially sensitive intelligence information only to the chairman and the ranking member of the minority party of the House and Senate intelligence committees, and to the leaders of Congress. This is how I came to be informed of President Bush's authorization for the NSA to conduct certain types of electronic surveillance.
But when the administration notifies Congress in this manner, it is not seeking approval. There is a clear expectation that the information will be shared with no one, including other members of the intelligence committees. As a result, only a few members of Congress were aware of the president's surveillance program, and they were constrained from discussing it more widely. That limitation must change.
In the executive branch, decisions about who should have access to intelligence are made on a "need to know" basis. Congress must adopt a similar principle. The members of the intelligence committees are entrusted by their colleagues with the responsibility for making sure that intelligence practices are consistent with our laws and our values. Unless the entire committee has access to the same information, under tight confidentiality rules, Congress cannot respond legislatively to intelligence activity by the executive branch.
In the 17 months since the Sept. 11 commission called on Congress to review the adequacy of its intelligence oversight system, I have written to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)four times to urge that we proceed in a bipartisan fashion to get that job done. In the letters, I have proposed that the House create a bipartisan, bicameral working group to recommend improvements to the oversight process. Its goal would be to find ways for Congress to more effectively carry out our statutory requirement to specifically authorize all intelligence activities; to make sure that all information provided to the chairs and ranking minority-party members of the intelligence committees is made available to every committee member, and to better ensure that information provided to Congress by intelligence agencies is complete and candid.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and other members with intelligence expertise have made similar requests. So far no action has been taken. Until we ensure that Congress can conduct thorough oversight, consistent with our constitutional responsibilities, we will not have honored our responsibility to protect the American people.
We all recognize that our efforts against terrorism or other threats require new, more flexible approaches. But in a democracy, those approaches cannot be fashioned unilaterally by an administration with a disturbingly expansive view of the powers of the president.
The writer is Democratic leader of the House of Representatives.