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Government Surveillance

Intelligence Oversight: New Rules for a New Day

Should each member of Congress have a staffer with a high-level security clearance that qualifies him or her to review classified information about secret surveillance programs that impact civil liberties? Should each member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have a committee staffer who represents his or her interests at the Committee, just like Senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have? Should whistleblowers who see intelligence surveillance abuse be able to report that abuse with ease to members of Congress?

If it seems clear that the answer to each of these questions is yes, then it should also be clear that reform of intelligence oversight in the House of Representatives is needed urgently. Today, Demand Progress and the R Street Institute released a sign-on letter calling for these and other reforms. The letter, to which CDT and 32 other civil society groups are signatories, is the product of a lengthy consultation with many stakeholders about the reforms needed to help Congress better carry out its intelligence oversight responsibilities. The letter is timed to give the incoming leadership of the House of Representatives – whoever that might be – time to assess the reforms called for prior to the adoption of new House rules in January. The House Rules Committee is meeting tomorrow to begin this discussion.

Congressional oversight efforts are falling short. Too many intelligence committee hearings are closed. Only three of the substantive hearings HPSCI conducted in the past two years were open to the public, and each was on threats the U.S. faces. Even the subject matter of many closed hearings is unavailable to the public, with the Committee reporting the topic as “Ongoing Intelligence Activities.” More transparency, consistent with national security needs, is required. In addition, members of Congress struggle to overcome obstacles to obtain the information necessary to grasp the import of intelligence programs that they vote to fund.   Fewer obstacles mean more access to the information necessary to conduct proper oversight activities.

And better oversight with more transparency must include more protections for whistleblowers. Steve Aftergood, the director of the secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists, once said to an intelligence oversight body, and I’m paraphrasing,

Imagine that you wanted to create an environment with more leaks, with more Edward Snowdens. What would you do? First, you would create a wide gap between what intelligence agencies are doing and what the public believes the law permits them to do. Then, you would give those on the inside who know about it no good way to report it to responsible decision-makers who haven’t already signed off on the questionable conduct.

Oversight can’t happen if conscientious public servants can’t share what they know with Congress.

We hope that members of Congress keep all of this in mind as they consider new rules for the House of Representatives that promote intelligence oversight and transparency, as well as national security.