Intel suffers from weak congressional oversight, senators told

Key senators and former members of the 9/11 Commission on Tuesday said congressional oversight of the nation's intelligence community remains dysfunctional, despite repeated attempts to make reforms.

In an effort to address the ongoing problems, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and other senators introduced a bipartisan resolution that would create a single committee in the Senate with the power to authorize and appropriate funding for the intelligence community.

The concept was proposed by the 9/11 Commission in 2004, but has never gained traction in Congress.

"Few things are more difficult to change in Washington than committee jurisdiction," former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

Hamilton said the nation is "less safe" because Congress is not conducting effective oversight of the intelligence community.

Hamilton and panel members said a major problem is lack of coordination between the Intelligence Committee, which authorizes intelligence programs and spending, and the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which allocates the money. The intelligence community received $43.5 billion in fiscal 2007, according to recently declassified figures.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the idea of combining authorizing and appropriating power into one committee "deeply attractive," but said he does not believe enough senators would vote for doing so. He said the proposal could actually weaken the Intelligence Committee if it failed because appropriators would know their power was not threatened.

Former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who also served on the 9/11 Commission, said "there's no doubt that there is a battle going on here in the Senate and over in the House" between authorizers and appropriators.

Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., said billions have been misspent due to the lack of coordination.

In an effort to improve coordination, the Intelligence and Appropriations committees signed an agreement in February to share information and jointly make budget decisions. Bond said the agreement has failed. "I can tell you that if change has occurred I haven't seen it," Bond said.

Rockefeller said he believes the agreement "has made great strides toward bringing our committees together in a unity of effort that was lacking before." But he said he is looking for solutions to problems that persist.

Bond said he favors the idea of enacting a law that requires the appropriators to take input from the authorizers.

Rockefeller said another major problem is that the Bush administration refuses to share information with his committee.

"For years, the White House and the intelligence community have repeatedly withheld information and documents -- even unclassified documents -- from the committee that we have asked for," he said. "Just last week, officials uniquely knowledgeable about the CIA [secret detention] program were prevented from meeting with the committee staff to answer questions."

Hamilton and Roemer said the only weapon that senators can use to extract information from the White House is withholding money.

"If you want access to information that you can't get ... don't give them the money. You'll get access to the information," Hamilton told Rockefeller.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec