Jane Harman

Oversight of U.S. Intelligence Agencies - May 9, 2003

Jane Harman
May 09, 2003— Washington, DC
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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The topic today is an important one: how best can Congress do oversight of US intelligence agencies - especially in the midst of war? My answer is that Congressional oversight must at all times be aggressive, balanced and constructive. Oversight isn’t about playing “gotcha” or going after personalities, it must be about improving the future performance of the system as a whole. No one questions the need to preserve the ability of intelligence agencies to operate in secret where necessary. But an open oversight component is also needed to assure the American people that the intelligence community is accountable. And we need to build in this capacity, this balance, on the front end of the process - not tack it on as an afterthought. The Intelligence Committee has a unique Constitutional role to conduct oversight and checks on the Executive Branch. Because much of the Committee’s work is closed - even to the rest of Congress - it is critically important that we be focused on policy and not politics. We have a tradition of working closely with the intelligence agencies. It can be an awkward relationship - we are both their overseers and customers. That can lead to problems - such as last year when the FBI investigated Joint Inquiry members after NSA testimony was leaked. But overall, I think the relationship works well. Both the Intelligence Committees have histories of uncovering and addressing intelligence abuses; the Church Commission is a good example. As important as those abuses are, and as much press as they garner, it is equally important to correct the structures and policies that allow them to happen. Reform, though, as we know, can be a two-edged sword. An example: the Deutch Guidelines were instituted to ensure that CIA headquarters approved recruitment of unsavory assets. Yet these guidelines had the unintended effect of reinforcing a risk averse culture at CIA that was damaging to our national security. Let me move now from the general to the specific. There are two things I want to be sure to cover this afternoon: First, the truly unacceptable delays in declassifying large portions of the Joint Inquiry report on 9-11 and second, the huge role intelligence played in the war in Iraq and will play in future conflicts. I wasn’t the Ranking Member on Intelligence when the joint inquiry into 9-11 was underway. But I was deeply involved as the then Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. I believe much was done right in the inquiry. We agreed with the Senate Intelligence Committee to do a single investigation, rather than two. Eleanor Hill did what I think is a masterful job of reporting the facts to the Committees and to the public. Her staff statements became the centerpieces of the Inquiry’s public and closed-door hearings. And for the most part, the intelligence community cooperated with us. Sure there was some kicking and screaming involved, especially over the sensitivity of some information. But we found a way to make it work. The inquiry was completed within the 107th Congress, as planned. And let’s be clear about something: the National Commission was created not to complete the work of the joint inquiry, but to ensure that questions beyond the intelligence committees’ purview would be adequately examined. But here’s the bad news. Even though our inquiry was completed in December of last year, the declassification process is still ongoing. That is wrong. If intelligence can be declassified in 48 hours for Colin Powell’s use at the UN, it shouldn’t take more than 48 days to declassify significant portions of the Joint Inquiry report. But here we are, six months later, and still with no report. A public report should be available now. The inquiry was not just an academic exercise to edify the Intelligence Community. It was paid for by the American people. It was done for their benefit. And as much of the report as possible should be released to the public - today. Can the Executive Branch move any more slowly? Probably, but only at its peril. The Executive Branch needs to put someone in charge of its side of the process - now - who can make decisions about declassifying information. No one is calling for releasing information that would compromise sources or methods. But other information that doesn’t harm national security should be declassified. The point is this: the longer the report is held up, the greater grow suspicions about what there is to hide. The American people, including those who lost family members on 9-11, have long awaited answers - they shouldn’t have to wait any longer than they already have. About Iraq. Intelligence - both good and bad - played a huge role in the war in Iraq. The war’s sudden start - with the attack on a Baghdad building where Saddam was thought to be - was driven by intelligence. Weapons were guided to their targets based on real time intelligence. The amount and quantity of WMD in Iraq is an open question. Though I was convinced of the WMD case made prior to the war, I am increasingly concerned about the lack of progress in uncovering the Iraqi weapons. We need a thorough accounting of what intelligence was available to Congress and war planners before and during the conflict. The spotlight needs to remain on Iraq’s weapons - not only because they were the moral basis for the war, but because we won’t be made more secure until the weapons are found. Saddam no longer controls the stocks of bio and chemical munitions, but others must know where they are, and could get their hands on them. And until the WMD is located, we will we face two huge problems. How can we be sure that it was destroyed? And how can we be sure that it is not secreted away for later use or transfer to some third party? So, what is next for oversight? Porter and I have drawn up a mission statement for our oversight activities so that we have a plan against which we measure our progress. There are four main themes: intelligence community reorganization; striking the right balance between liberty and security; the need to stop proliferation in its tracks; and budget review. Our committee held an unprecedented open hearing on civil liberties and security on April 9 - the first in what I hope is a series of such hearings. We need to grapple with any so-called PATRIOT II ideas before we are in the midst of a crisis provoked by another terrorist attack. Good intelligence, now more than ever, is the key to success in foreign and military affairs. Intelligence is crucial to preventing and winning the wars of the future.