To Fix House Intelligence Oversight, Change the Rules

OpenTheGovernment.org joined a diverse group of 50 organizations, whistleblowers, and former Congressional staffers calling on Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi to support changes to the House of Representatives’ rules, to allow effective oversight on national security matters.

If you’ve been paying attention to intelligence oversight in recent weeks, your attention has likely been on the Senate, and particularly the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI’s) release of the Executive Summary of its torture report.

SSCI’s oversight record is mixed. Their exhaustive study of the torture report was a remarkable effort—but the fact that it is only now being released, nearly a decade after the existence of CIA black sites was publicly revealed, demonstrates how many obstacles even the most dedicated Senators and staffers face. And SSCI has not examined ongoing operations such as the targeted killing and surveillance programs with anything near the same level attention it has devoted to torture.

But if SSCI’s oversight record is mixed, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s (HPSCI) record is much worse. HPSCI has served primarily to defend, rather than scrutinize, the intelligence community. Some of this is due to the members and leadership of the committee, but the House’s rules are also an important factor.

To give just one example:  both the House of Representatives and the Senate have a rule that only committee staff, not personal office staff, can hold a Top Secret-SCI clearance.  Even if a personal office staffer holds a Top Secret-SCI clearance from another position, it is suspended for the duration of his or her work for a member of Congress.

This means that most members of the House must attempt to make sense of surveillance programs and other intelligence activities without any help from their own staff. Instead, they must either rely on committee staffers–who effectively work for and answer to the committee chair and ranking member—or try to muddle through on their own.

In contrast, the Senate Intelligence Committee gives each member a staff designee—a staffer whom that member has the authority to hire and fire. This means that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall did not have to rely on Senator Feinstein’s staff to prepare them for oversight hearings on surveillance, or to help them analyze the drone program.  

The Supreme Court recognized in Gravel v. United States that

it is literally impossible, in view of the complexities of the modern legislative process, with Congress  almost constantly in session and matters of legislative concern constantly proliferating, for Members of Congress to perform their legislative tasks without the help of aides and assistants.

But that is exactly what House members—even members of the intelligence committee–are expected to do. That must change.

The letter and white paper discuss this, and a number of other proposals to enhance oversight, in considerably more detail.

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