In a recent piece here on The Monkey Cage, Michael Colaresi discussed the need for change in oversight of the CIA and by extension the entirety of the intelligence community. He suggests that in the wake of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture issued Dec. 9, “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” (my emphasis).
He then offers details–based on his recent book Democracy Declassified, which I highly recommend—of the benefits of this additional oversight:
…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.
Colaresi offers international examples of “expert-led intelligence oversight bodies outside of the executive” that can serve as models for a Congress that lacks experts in intelligence. His book states that “extra-executive bodies that do not rely on the president or prime minister for legitimacy and political power are the only reliable engines of oversight” (133; my emphasis).
But by focusing on oversight beyond the executive branch, Colaresi excludes some other important sources of oversight. For example, inspectors general in the United States, including those within the intelligence community, have been granted increased powers in the same period of times that Colaresi studies. IGs are expected to conduct investigations and audits in order to prevent abuses of power within their agencies. John Rizzo in Company Man notes that “…when the [Central Intelligence] Agency learns about a possible violation of U.S. law… even by someone not affiliated with the CIA, the Office of General Counsel prepares a ‘crimes report’ letter to the head of the DOJ criminal division” (pp.149-150).
I would be cautious about creating new institutions to oversee the intelligence community, as Colaresi suggests. As I have previously written:
the more committees, institutions and individuals share oversight duties, the more acute the collective action problem becomes, leading to a preference that oversight occurs by another actor. Because oversight is costly, increasing the number of principals can decrease the incentive for any one of the institutions to actually perform an oversight role, because each prefers the others to bear the cost of auditing the agent.
Thus, creating new oversight bodies may actually backfire and diminish the influence of the legislative branch on the intelligence community.
This point aside, Democracy Declassified is an excellent book. It examines the role that secrecy plays in democratic theory, offers an interesting history of executive deeds and misdeeds in the name of national security, and provides insight to the benefits of legislative oversight of executive action, informed by analysis of intelligence oversight in major democracies from 1975-2005.
Colaresi’s account also offers optimism about the long-term impact of the Senate committee’s report on torture. Although CIA Director John Brennan has “declined to say if a future American president might once again order the use of brutal interrogation methods in a crisis,” and even Senate committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein believes that a “[f]uture president could… reinstate EIT program,” Colaresi argues that presidents who “abuse the capacity for secrecy” can pay a price.
Democracy Declassified describes how revelations of abuse led to President Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal, and how because of the Iran-contra scandal Ronald Reagan saw his approval rating drop and lost some capacity to realize his legislative agenda. In short, the Senate committee’s report on torture could provide a credible threat, at least in the short term, that there will be effective retrospective oversight, and thus future presidents may limit their actions accordingly. Moreover, Colaresi argues that even a powerful executive needs political support: “The captain still needs a crew, as well as someone to finance the ship of state” (240).
I agree with Colaresi that the president depends on Congress, but this is also why I am more reticent to accept policy made in secret. Congress needs to vet executive actions when they happen, not after the fact.
At least some national security professionals agree with me, under certain circumstances. For example, after Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that “had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11—which is the genesis of the 215 program—and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap… so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards… We wouldn’t have had the problem we had” (my emphasis).
As intelligence oversight continues to make the news, and the CIA interrogation programs continue to be debated domestically and internationally, further discussion of oversight institutions and their proper role should continue. Democracy Declassified is a worthy addition to the discussion.
Tobias T. Gibson is an associate professor of Political Science at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. He is also a Fellow with the National Security Network (NSN). The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NSN.