Senate Mulls Changes in Intelligence Oversight

The Senate Intelligence Committee has recommended creation of a new Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Intelligence to prepare the annual intelligence budget.

“The [proposed] Subcommittee on Intelligence shall appropriate all funds for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) (as opposed to the current situation where appropriations for the NIP are fragmented among several subcommittees within the Appropriations Committee),” according to the March 6, 2008 proposal (pdf) sent by fourteen members of the Intelligence Committee to the Senate Majority Leader.

The proposed Subcommittee, on which members of the Intelligence Committee would be heavily represented, would increase the Committee’s influence and leverage over executive branch intelligence agencies. It would also probably imply and require continuing disclosure of the annual budget for the National Intelligence Program.

The proposal was developed in response to recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and 2007 legislation implementing those recommendations. It has already won significant bipartisan support outside of the Intelligence Committee.

“The options for additional reform contained in the SSCI’s letter represent a thoughtful response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations,” wrote Senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on March 13 (pdf).

But the proposal is opposed by the leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We do not understand how the creation of an Intelligence [Appropriations] Subcommittee, led by members of the Intelligence Committee, would do anything but minimize the free exchange of ideas and hamper the debate which exists in the current system,” wrote Senators Robert Byrd and Thad Cochran, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee.

“We strongly believe that consolidating authority over intelligence in a smaller group of Senators is precisely the wrong way to improve the Senate’s oversight of intelligence,” they wrote in an April 5 letter (pdf) to the Senate leadership.

It may be argued that the greatest defect in Senate oversight of intelligence is not a limitation of jurisdiction or budgetary influence, but of principle and will. Overseers have failed in recent years to challenge the Administration’s implicit view that the ends justify the means, and they have acquiesced in momentous intelligence policy deviations, which now apparently include officially-sanctioned torture (though that word is not used) and extra-legal surveillance of domestic communications. Americans who are repulsed by such developments lack effective representation in the Senate oversight process.

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