As you all know, I have a love/hate relationship with our intelligence agencies. I am simultaneously fascinated and repelled by them. I really have no problem with stealing secrets and protecting our own. I have a problem with two things. The CIA illegally opened our mail for 18 years and never told Congress or the President that they were doing it. If we are going to have covert agencies they cannot act independently of the executive and Congress. My other problem is that they have repeatedly carried out highly dubious policies. But this latter problem is less the fault of the intelligence agencies than the policy makers. What I really want is for Congress to conduct rigorous oversight of both our intelligence agencies and our executive’s policies. And I want the intelligence services to dedicate themselves to producing the best analysis available anywhere in the world, so our political leaders have the best information possible.
That is why I am disappointed to read that Pelosi and Reid are reneging on their promise to implement the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations on reforming Congressional oversight of our intelligence agencies. The way it works right now is flawed. Each house of Congress has a select committee on intelligence. The members of those committees have special security clearances and are supposed to be informed about our covert operations and have influence over the policies and procedures. But the committees do not have any budgetary authority. The budget is taken care of in the Defense Appropriations subcommittees.
For example, in the House, Jack Murtha is set to become the chairman of that subcommittee and he will control the purse strings for the CIA, NSA, etc. The 9/11 Commission recommended giving that authority to the Intelligence Committees. But Pelosi is disinclined to take away any of Murtha’s power. I can understand the personal dynamics at play here, but this is a mistake.
To the Sept. 11 commission, the call for congressional overhaul was vital, said former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), the commission’s co-chairman. Because intelligence committee membership affords lawmakers access to classified information, only intelligence committee members can develop the expertise to watch over operations properly, he said. But because the panels do not control the budget, intelligence agencies tend to dismiss them.
“The person who controls your budget is the person you listen to,” Kean said.
Those people, the appropriators, do not seem to care much, he said. The intelligence budget is a small fraction of the nearly $500 billion overseen by the armed services committees and the appropriations panels’ defense subcommittees. Kean said that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an Armed Services Committee member, told the Sept. 11 commission that if his panel spends 10 minutes considering the intelligence budget, it has been a good year.
I agree with Thomas Kean and I think McCain’s remark speaks for itself. I don’t really care whether the Democrats enact all the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. Some of them seem to me to be a giant waste of money and resources. But we really need to do a better job of overseeing our intelligence agencies and I support the commission’s position. I wish Pelosi and Reid supported it too.