Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: Background and Selected Options for Further Reform

Prior to the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in 1976 and 1977, respectively, Congress did not take much interest in conducting oversight of the intelligence community (IC). The Subcommittees on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the congressional Armed Services Committees had nominal oversight responsibility, though Congress generally trusted that IC could more or less regulate itself and conduct activities that complied with the law, were ethical, and shared a common understanding of national security priorities.

Media reports in the 1970s of the CIA﷿s domestic surveillance of Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam, in addition to the agency﷿s activities relating to national elections in Chile, prompted Congress to change its approach. In 1975, Congress established two select committees to investigate intelligence activities, chaired by Senator Frank Church in the Senate (the ﷿Church Committee﷿), and Representative Otis Pike in the House (the ﷿Pike Committee﷿). Following their creation, the Church and Pike committees﷿ hearings revealed the possible extent of the abuse of authority by the IC and the potential need for permanent committee oversight focused solely on the IC and intelligence activities.

SSCI and HPSCI oversight contributed substantially to Congress’ work to legislate improvements to intelligence organization, programs, and processes, and it enabled a more structured, routine relationship with intelligence agencies. On occasion, this has resulted in Congress advocating on behalf of intelligence reform legislation that many agree has generally improved IC organization and performance. At other times, congressional oversight has been perceived as less helpful, delving into the details of programs and activities. Other congressional committees have cooperated with the HPSCI and SSCI in their oversight role since their establishment. Intelligence programs are often closely tied to foreign and defense policy, military operations, homeland security, cybersecurity, and law enforcement. Committees in both chambers for Foreign Affairs/Relations, Armed Services, Appropriations, Judiciary, and Homeland Security, therefore, share jurisdiction over intelligence.

Some have suggested the current overlapping jurisdictions for oversight of the IC in Congress contribute to the perception of weak congressional intelligence committees that have relatively little authority and insufficient expertise. Others cite the overlapping responsibilities as a strength. Oversight of the IC spread over more committees can contribute to greater awareness and transparency in Congress of classified intelligence activities that are largely hidden from public view. They also claim that since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Senate and House rules have changed to enable the congressional intelligence committees to have more authority and be more effective in carrying out their oversight responsibilities. Further reform, they argue, may be unrealistic from a political standpoint.

An oft-cited observation of the Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (i.e., the 9-11 Commission) that congressional oversight of intelligence is ﷿dysfunctional﷿ continues to overshadow discussion of whether Congress has done enough. Does congressional oversight enable the IC to be more effective, better funded, and better organized, or does it burden agencies by the sheer volume of detailed inquiries into intelligence programs and related activities? A central question for Congress is as follows: Could additional changes to the rules governing congressional oversight of intelligence enable Congress to more effectively fund programs, influence policy, and legislate improvements in intelligence standards, organization, and process that would make the country safer?