If Republicans take the House, control of the Intelligence Committee is likely to pass to them. The lead Republican on intelligence, Rep. Michael R. Turner (Ohio), has said that he intends to return the committee to its traditional oversight role and minimize partisan rancor. Amy Zegart, the Morris Arnold and Nona Jean Cox Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is the author of a recent book on U.S. intelligence, “Spies, Lies and Algorithms.” Before the election, I interviewed her over email about what her book has to tell us on what’s likely to happen to intelligence oversight (and intelligence on the Russia-Ukraine war).
Q: Members of Congress — and especially the House of Representatives — seem not to value working on the Intelligence Committee, despite its importance. Why not?
A: Working on the Intelligence committees just doesn’t help you get elected. The Intelligence committees don’t deliver jobs or benefits to constituents like other committees do. Because intelligence is so complicated, it demands the most precious resource legislators have: time. And members can’t even talk much about what they do on the Intelligence committees with voters back home. As former CIA director Mike Hayden once told me, no one ever gets a bridge built by serving on those committees. It’s an act of patriotism.
Q: Turner promises “robust oversight.” Your book tells us why robust oversight of intelligence is incredibly difficult. What are the key problems?
A: There are three key problems: information, incentives and institutions. The executive branch always has much more information about its intelligence activities than Congress does. In other policy areas, Congress can rely on all sorts of outside groups like think tanks and interest groups to help fill information gaps and improve oversight. But because intelligence requires so much secrecy, Congress is on its own.
The second key problem is incentives. Members of Congress respond to incentives just like everyone else; they tend to spend more time on activities that help win reelection and less time on activities that don’t. Because intelligence has never been a burning issue for voters, most members of Congress choose to spend little time on it.
The third problem is that Congress has tied its own institutional hands with rules and procedures that make it hard to develop expertise and wield Congress’s power of the purse (its ability to control spending) effectively. In the House, for example, there are term limits on the Intelligence Committee, so just when members know the acronyms of all 18 U.S. intelligence agencies, they have to roll off the committee and serve elsewhere.
Furthermore, budgeting is split between the Intelligence committees and the House and Senate Appropriations committees. For years, Intelligence committee members have complained that when they try cutting an ineffective intelligence program, agencies can just go around them and get the appropriators to put the program back in. It’s the two-parent approach: If mom says no, go to dad. This structure makes effective oversight challenging.
Q: Intelligence used not to be a partisan issue. Now it most certainly is. Will this continue, and what might the consequences for oversight be?
A: I hope the House will return bipartisanship as Congressman Turner has promised. The Senate Intelligence Committee, to its credit, has taken great pains to remain bipartisan even during recent turbulent times. These committees were established in the 1970s to be far more bipartisan than the rest of Congress for two reasons: making spy agencies effective and keeping them accountable. Weak intelligence agencies make the nation vulnerable. Overly powerful intelligence agencies threaten our values and civil liberties. When congressional intelligence oversight becomes partisan, it undermines the most important ingredient for intelligence in a democratic society: trust.
Q: Your book talks about many other things than oversight, including how open access to technology has helped amateurs get into the intelligence game. How has this played out in the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
A: We are living in a moment of profound technological change that is disrupting every aspect of the intelligence business. Thanks to commercial satellites, social media and internet connectivity, intelligence isn’t just for governments anymore. Publicly available or so-called “open source” intelligence is a game changer.
When Russia invaded Ukraine the last time, in 2014, the best intelligence came from selfies, not secrets — Russian soldiers posting photos with Ukrainian highway signs and time stamps. Today, we can follow satellite imagery of Russia’s troop movements in near real time without a security clearance. Intelligence “customers” — the people who get the information gathered by intelligence agencies — are changing radically, too. It used to be that intelligence was produced by secret agencies for customers with security clearances. Now voters need intelligence about foreign election threats, and corporate leaders need intelligence about cyberthreats to keep the country safe. Today, spy agencies have to produce intelligence more for public consumption without compromising sources and methods — informing people in living rooms and board rooms, not just the White House Situation Room. That’s a huge change. U.S. intelligence agencies need to adapt to these new technologies and realities or they will fail.