On Tuesday, the long-delayed Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on torture was finally released to the public. This could and should be a watershed moment for the U.S. to reconsider what it wants out of its intelligence services and oversight committees.
Unfortunately, if the early responses are to be believed, current and former CIA officials, as well as President Obama, seem bent on missing the relevant lessons to improve governance of national security. The CIA needs more, not less, oversight.
To understand why innovations in national security oversight are necessary in the U.S., we need to dispense with two fictions. First, many Republicans and a few former CIA officials appear to believe that the intelligence community does not benefit from public congressional oversight. For example, the minority report to the Senate torture investigation, drafted and signed by four Republican senators, worries that oversight investigations “attack the CIA’s integrity and credibility.”
As I argue in my recent book, Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security, this view gets the role of legislative intelligence investigations exactly backwards. Holding secret organizations, such as the CIA, publicly accountable is the most reliable source of the organizations integrity and credibility. Think to yourself why the CIA or the NSA, operating in the dark, and potentially abusing their powers, would have any credibility to a skeptical citizen if it was not eventually accountable for its actions outside of the executive? In the past, public and elite distrust of intelligence agencies has led to programs being shut down, for example during the Cyprus crisis in the mid-1970’s (p. 276 here).
In the past, the necessity of reassuring the public was embraced by no less of an authority on secrecy than former CIA director William E. Colby. He wrote in 1976 that holding national security agencies to account would not weaken security, but instead should, “strengthen American intelligence.” He went on to explain that with greater access to information, the public can be reassured that the discretion to keep secrets will be used “for the protection of our democracy in tomorrow’s world, not covers for mistake or misdeed.”
What Colby understood was that accountability and secrecy are not either/or substitutes. Both are necessary for effective foreign policy in democracies. Without a capacity to keep secrets, the U.S. would not be able to anticipate, deceive or suppress the capabilities of potential threats and competitors. But without accountability, the public may come to believe that secrecy is being abused to cover-up incompetence or corruption.
Recent research by myself as well as important work by Loch Johnson suggests that Colby was on to something. We now have systematic evidence that democracies with strong oversight of national security policy win more of their foreign policy crises against non-democracies as compared to democracies that empower their executives with secrecy, but lack strong oversight powers. Investigations of past policies may reveal some useful information to enemies, but these costs are more than compensated for as they deter future abuse and raise public confidence.
Unfortunately, the current rhetoric coming from the CIA implies that many have forgotten these facts. Three former CIA directors and three deputy directors wrote in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal that while they supported oversight, it should be “discreet.” But how can the public be reassured if potential abuses remain secret? Intelligence needs effective legislative oversight to be credible. There is no substitute.
A second, equally problematic fiction is that the release of the torture report alone will magically deter torture and abuse in the future. When defending the release of the report, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) stated, “This report is about making sure people understand what happened and then how it happened, so it doesn’t happen again.” Sen. Wyden’s hope ignores the fact that no one has been punished for the policies that have produced the abuses and particularly the apparent deceptions discussed in the report. Simply publicizing the executive summary alone took 5 years from the start of the investigation.
Additionally, President Obama promised in his statement that, he “will continue to use [his] authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.” The obvious problem with this aspiration is that President Obama leaves office in January 2017 and a previous President used these same powers to sanction torture. We need new institutions to bridge the gap between these hopes and the evidence of abuses before us.
If current practice stands, a future torturer within the intelligence community can look at this process and remain confident that even if they were to abuse their authority, their names would be redacted in any report and they would not face sanctions. That is not something to be proud of. More to the point, critics rightly point out that the report lacks recommendations that will improve the accountability and functioning of the CIA into the future.
As past examples show us, releasing reports is but one step towards improving the governance of national security in the United States. In the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans together constructed what at the time was a world class system of oversight in response to the revelation of previous abuses of counter-intelligence powers. It was these changes that Colby was referencing. In fact, my data on national security oversight institutions around the world suggests that by 1975, the United States led the democratic world in tools to retrospectively investigate the executive on national security policy.
But intelligence oversight is a Red Queen’s race and the overseers stopped running decades ago. The saga of the torture report, with the CIA spying on the overseers, along with partisan bickering and extensive delays, lay bare the fact that the United State now has an outdated 40-year-old national security intelligence oversight apparatus that is not up to the current job. The same rankings that in decades past had the U.S. leading the world in national security oversight show that by 2005 the U.S. had fallen toward the middle of the pack.
Luckily today, there are several models to learn from and build upon to improve intelligence oversight in the U.S. For example, after the Lund Report found a pattern of deception and abuse in the Norwegian intelligence community, the Stortinget created the Intelligence Oversight Committee (EOS). While imperfect, this body is comprised of expert non-political staff that report to the legislature, have the highest security clearance, and can release information to the public. To varying degrees, Belgium, Canada, and Sweden also have expert-led intelligence oversight bodies outside of the executive. It is notable that many of the facts we have learned about extraordinary rendition have come out of some of these countries, as opposed to the U.S., over the last five years.
In the United States, we know from the torture report and the Edward Snowden revelations that intelligence is gathered and collected in highly technical and specialized ways. New rules and institutions, potentially including an General Intelligence Accounting Office that is staffed by professionals and reports to Congress and the public, will help reassure the public that intelligence will be used productively.
Failing to improve oversight in the face of polarization and distrust of the intelligence community will improve neither security nor accountability. In praising the benefits of intelligence oversight, former director Colby wrote that “the costs of the past year were high, but they will be exceeded by the value of this strengthening of what was already the best intelligence service in the world.” He was right once. It is time to prove him right again.
Michael Colaresi is Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University and author of the book Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security.