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Intelligence Oversight: Is Congress the Problem?

August 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner speaks with former Sen. Slade Gorton and former CIA Director John McLaughlin about oversight of the nation's massive intelligence community.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, we begin a look at key issues facing the U.S. intelligence community first raised in The Washington Post series “Top Secret America.” Those stories detailed the dramatic expansion of the intelligence community since 9/11.

Tonight, Margaret Warner examines one piece of that intelligence puzzle: congressional oversight.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), national intelligence director nominee: We are the largest, most capable intelligence enterprise on the planet.

MARGARET WARNER: That was the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, testifying two weeks ago as he sought confirmation by the Senate Intelligence Committee to become the country’s fourth director of national intelligence. His hearing took place the week The Washington Post ran a series on the massive growth in the U.S. intelligence counterterrorism community since 9/11.

The Post found an enterprise of more than 1,000 agencies and nearly 2,000 private contractors, so unwieldy and secretive that no one really knows how big it is or how effective.

Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein seemed to agree with the gist of that assessment.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-Calif.): Intelligence growth has not always led to improved performance. Growth in the size and number of agencies, offices, task forces, and centers has also challenged the ability of former directors of national intelligence to truly manage the community.

MARGARET WARNER: But Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, rejected The Post’s conclusions.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER: I didn’t agree with some of that. I — I think there was some breathless and shrillness to it that I — I don’t subscribe to. That’s not to say that there aren’t inefficiencies and there aren’t things we can — we can improve.

MARGARET WARNER: The irony is that Clapper was appearing before just one of the more than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees with an oversight role over the agencies waging the nation’s battle with terrorism, from the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

One of the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations was to strengthen and streamline congressional oversight of those agencies. But that never happened, according to Philip Zelikow, former executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

PHILIP ZELIKOW, former executive director, 9/11 Commission: Frankly, the Congress didn’t enact the full recommendation the report had even for the executive branch, because the turf battles that we talked about in the executive branch are mirrored in the Congress.

But that’s not all. The structures that control all this money aren’t just structures in the executive branch. They’re structures in the Congress. And the Congress didn’t change its structure at all.

MARGARET WARNER: In short, said Zelikow, Congress is part of the problem.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: All these entities sprawling around, the reason they exist, the reason they keep getting money is because they have a network of supporters, many of them in the Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Clapper’s confirmation is being held up by three senators over the administration’s failure to turn over documents on other issues.

What role does Congress play in the need for intelligence reform?

For that, we turn to two longtime players from different branches of government. John McLaughlin held the top two spots at the CIA, deputy director and then acting director. He now teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Slade Gorton spent a total of 18 years in the U.S. Senate representing Washington State. He then served as a member of the 9/11 Commission. He now practices law in Seattle.

And welcome to you both.

Senator Gorton, I will go directly to you. Is Phil Zelikow right? Is Congress part of the problem when it comes to inefficiencies and turf battles that we see among all these different agencies, our whole intelligence and antiterrorism apparatus?

SLADE GORTON, former 9/11 commission member: Philip is, if anything, a little bit on the mild side. The numbers we had at the time the 9/11 Commission met was that there were 88 congressional committees and subcommittees that had something to do with intelligence oversight. We thought they had reduced it to 79. You have just told us it’s actually gone up to 100.

I can say, myself, I served a little bit more than two years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and I quit because it was worthless. We didn’t have any real authority over those intelligence agencies. They didn’t pay a lot of attention to us. In fact, I hardly ever heard anything reported even in a secret meeting that I didn’t read in The Washington Post within 48 hours.

It seemed to me to be a waste of time. And, if anything, I think it’s gotten worse since.

MARGARET WARNER: How about you, John McLaughlin? From sitting as an agency head, how did oversight look to you?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, former acting CIA director: Well, the first thing I would say is, it’s very important that we have good oversight. And I want to make clear that that’s a goal and an objective I support.

Oversight worked pretty well in the 1980s. Some time in the 1990s, it began to mirror the rest of Congress, mirror the way other committees work. It caught the spirit of partisan politics that we see elsewhere in the Congress. The committees discovered television. The partisan spirit that infected them has, for example, I think, prevented them now, for the fifth year — unless they make a breakthrough — for the fifth year, in coming to an agreement on a bill authorizing the intelligence budget.

The importance of that is, that’s one of their major powers. And by not authorizing a budget, they really give up a lot of their control, because intelligence agencies aren’t dumb. They go right to the appropriators.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean the ones who actually appropriate the money.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: They go to committees that appropriate the money.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Yes.

So, Senator Gorton, one of the key recommendations of your commission was the appointment of this director of national intelligence. Now, the Congress did do that. Do you think — but now there are all these questions about whether it has enough authority. Do you think Congress bears a role in that?

SLADE GORTON: Congress created the title, but Congress didn’t follow the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission with respect to authority.

We wanted one person in charge of the intelligence agencies of the United States, that DNI, with very real authority over budget and with very real authority over personnel. That was largely gutted. And I’m afraid that, to a certain extent at least, what we created in the actual DNI was simply another layer of bureaucracy, with too many people and too little in the way of authority.

And, in that respect, of course, it reflects the way the Congress operates itself.

MARGARET WARNER: But why did that happen? Why didn’t they give the DNI real heft?

SLADE GORTON: Well, the debate took place for a period of time right after the 2004 election. The Senate, I may say, did authorize the creation of the DNI with pretty much the authority that the 9/11 Commission asked for.

It was undercut in the House by, I think the then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Remember, the Armed Services get about three-quarters of all of the intelligence money. The Defense Department, even under George Bush, and under Obama as well, fought losing the authority it had. The House listened to that argument, and the House undercut the authority of the DNI.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that part of the problem, John McLaughlin? I saw you nodding your head, both when Phil Zelikow was speaking…

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: … and Senator Gorton, which is, every agency, subagency has its champions on the Hill that jealously guard its budget and its prerogatives.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: That’s right. And the senator is correct in saying that, when this office was created, the fights over its authorities really limited the authority of the office.

In some ways, this can be an authoritative office. It can be well-run. And I have a feeling Jim Clapper may do that. One of the problems is that, because this person doesn’t head a major agency, as the predecessor, the director of central intelligence, did, he has a little trouble or she has a little trouble establishing that kind of authority that you have in heading a large institution.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you another question, which goes to what it’s like to be an agency head.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, take yourself outside even the CIA.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Roemer, who was a member of this…

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: … of the 9/11 Commission, spoke recently. And he said, it’s absolutely absurd to have now the Department of Homeland Security technically has to respond to 88 or 90 different congressional subcommittees or committees, when, he said — quote — “We’re supposed to be fighting al-Qaida.”

How much of a distraction and a drain on actually the productive capacity of an agency is it to be constantly having to respond to the Hill?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that’s the extreme case, Homeland Security.

In fact, I think there aren’t — the number of committees that overlook the CIA and the National Security Agency and so forth is not excessive. There really are two main ones and then two appropriations committees. That’s not a lot. Homeland Security is another story.

The real problem is that this relationship doesn’t work very well. There are — there’s too much — they mirror the other committees too much. When these committees were created, they were created with the idea they would be different. They would see all of the information, in return for a certain amount of discretion and honest criticism.

They have too many open hearings. There are too many press releases about the…

MARGARET WARNER: All for public consumption.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: All for public consumption.

And I say all of that in the context of my strong belief that oversight is very important. This is one of the few things that connects this very arcane business to the American public.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask Senator Gorton.

Do you agree with that critique, that there’s too much sort of public posturing, but not enough real oversight?

SLADE GORTON: I do agree, yes.

You can have a little bit of sympathy with some of the members. This is a thankless task. And if it’s done behind closed doors, it takes a great deal of time. It takes time and effort away from other matters. It requires a real dedication and I think probably a system in which many of the members come from districts or states in which they aren’t threatened for reelection to have it done right.

It’s a prestige appointment. And all too many members use that prestige appointment to try to aggrandize themselves politically, and not really do the work that’s necessary to provide appropriate oversight.

MARGARET WARNER: And…

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: In fairness to the Congress, though, I would just say — I agree with the senator’s point, but, in fairness to the Congress, intelligence did become more controversial after 9/11 and after Iraq. So, it’s not as though this just happened for no reason. But it needs to be reined in.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Senator…

SLADE GORTON: There was another time, of course, when it was very controversial. And that was back in the 1970s at the end of Vietnam and the Church commission. And I’m not sure that helped the intelligence agencies much either.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Senator Gorton, Lee Hamilton, who was co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, said in a speech last year that, paradoxically, the more committees you have involved in something, the less robust the oversight is. Do you agree with that?

SLADE GORTON: That’s probably true. Again, I agree with the former director there that the concentration at least on the important agencies ought to be and probably still is in the appropriations committee and in the authorizing committee.

But, as he pointed out, when the authorizing committees and the Congress don’t work, don’t pass authorizing bills, it really comes down to a handful of people. While I was there in the Senate, it was basically Senator Stevens and Senator Inouye, because they controlled the money.

And they did operate responsibly. They operated in secret, but the rest of us really didn’t know what they were doing.

MARGARET WARNER: Very brief final word from both of you. As longtime Washington hands, what would it take to get Congress to actually reform its structure when it involves giving up power?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I think it takes seriousness of purpose. It takes your best members of Congress, your most serious members of Congress. It takes a great deal of discretion.

And, as the senator pointed out, I think it takes a certain amount of sacrifice, in terms of the political benefits that may or may not come to you from being on these committees.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Senator Gorton, after the Christmas Day bomber failure, or almost success, Congress held hearings on executive branch failures, but nothing about itself. Do you think anything will prompt Congress to do this?

SLADE GORTON: I’m afraid it may only be another disaster, because, as the director pointed out, it takes a great deal of sacrifice, not just in time, but it takes the willingness on some — on the part of some members of Congress to say, let’s concentrate this. We will give up a little tiny bit of our own authority, so that the body overall can do a better job.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

Former Senator Slade Gorton, former acting CIA director John McLaughlin, thank you both.

GWEN IFILL: In a future program, we will look at the role independent contractors play in intelligence gathering.