Q: Members of Congress — and especially the House of Representatives — don’t seem to enjoy working on the Intelligence Committee, despite its importance. Why not?
A: Working in intelligence commissions does not help you get elected. Intelligence committees do not offer jobs or benefits to voters like other committees do. Because intelligence is so complicated, it requires the most valuable resource lawmakers have: time. And members can’t even talk much about what they do on intelligence committees with constituents back home. As former CIA Director Mike Hayden once told me, no one ever gets a bridge built by serving on these committees. It is an act of patriotism.
Q: Turner promises “strong oversight”. Your book tells us why strong intelligence oversight is incredibly difficult. What are the key issues?
A: There are three key issues: information, incentives and institutions. The executive branch always has far more information about its intelligence activities than Congress. In other policy areas, Congress can count on all sorts of outside groups like think tanks and interest groups to help fill information gaps and improve oversight. But because intelligence demands so much secrecy, Congress stands alone.
The second key problem is that of incentives. Members of Congress respond to incitements like everyone else; they tend to spend more time on activities that help win re-election and less time on activities that don’t. Because intelligence has never been a hot topic for voters, most members of Congress choose to spend little time on it.
The third problem is that Congress has tied its own institutional hands with rules and procedures that make it difficult to develop expertise and effectively exercise Congress’ purse power (its ability to control spending). In the House, for example, there are term limits on the Intelligence Committee, so just when members know the acronyms for the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies, they must leave the committee and serve elsewhere.
In addition, budgeting is divided between the Intelligence Committees and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. For years, intelligence committee members have complained that when they try to take down an ineffective intelligence program, agencies can simply bypass them and ask officials to put the program back in place. It’s the two-parent approach: if mom says no, go see dad. . This structure makes effective monitoring difficult.
Q: In the past, intelligence was not a partisan issue. Now it most certainly is. Will this continue and what might be the implications for surveillance?
A: I hope the House will return to bipartisanship, as MP Turner promised. The Senate Intelligence Committee, to its credit, has gone to great lengths to remain bipartisan, even during recent turbulent times. These committees were created in the 1970s to be much more bipartisan than the rest of Congress for two reasons: to make spy agencies effective and to hold them accountable. Weak intelligence agencies make the nation vulnerable. Overly powerful intelligence agencies threaten our values and civil liberties. When congressional oversight of intelligence becomes partisan, it undermines the most important ingredient of intelligence in a democratic society: trust.
Q: Your book is about much more than surveillance, including how open access to technology has helped amateurs get into the intelligence game. How did this play out in the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
A: We live in a time of profound technological change that is disrupting all aspects of the intelligence industry. Thanks to commercial satellites, social media and Internet connectivity, intelligence is no longer just for governments. Publicly available or so-called “open source” information is a game-changer.
When Russia last invaded Ukraine in 2014, the best intelligence came from selfies, not secrets – Russian soldiers posting photos with Ukrainian road signs and time stamps. Today, we can follow satellite images of Russian troop movements in near real time without security clearance. The “clients” of intelligence – the people who get the information gathered by intelligence agencies – are also changing dramatically. Previously, intelligence was produced by secret agencies for clients with security clearances. Now, voters need intelligence on foreign election threats, and business leaders need intelligence on cyber threats to keep the country safe. Today, spy agencies must produce more intelligence for public consumption without compromising sources and methods – informing people in living rooms and boardrooms, not just the White House Situation Room. It’s a huge change. US intelligence agencies must adapt to these new technologies and realities or they will fail.