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The Time is Ripe for New Rules on Congressional Oversight

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The start of each new Congress marks the chance to adopt new rules for the next two years. These rules define leadership power structure, lay out the committee system, and cover a wide range of procedural matters. In light of this, the Project On Government Oversight joined more than 50 organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum to ask the House of Representatives to take advantage of this opportunity and improve its rules regarding congressional oversight of national security.

By their very nature, problems with national security and intelligence activities don’t make it to the public quickly—for example, it took seven years for the Senate torture report to finally be released—but we expect Congress to know what is going on, even when we do not. However, recent events ranging from the lack of information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic metadata collection and retention to misreporting about the extent of the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation programs have made clear that Congress often doesn’t know much more than the rest of us when it comes to national security issues until those issues are widely reported.

The letter, accompanied by a detailed white paper, recommends that the new Congress take advantage of the transition in leadership and upcoming adoption of new rules to enhance opportunities for oversight of intelligence activities. The recommendations include ways to modernize the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to empower all members of the House to participate in oversight activities, and to review intelligence community activities. The most recent House rules created an environment where national security and intelligence oversight was cumbersome at best and near impossible at worst. Many congressional staffers lack the proper security clearances to attend relevant hearings, Members are prohibited from discussing classified information that has been widely circulated through the media, and unclassified reports remain hidden from public record.

The importance of effective oversight cannot be overstated, and Congress is the best place for that oversight to occur. The suggested changes include common-sense reforms such as stipulating that each congressional office have at least one staffer with a Top Secret/Special Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance so that they may attend all relevant hearings and provide adequate information to their boss, and making unclassified reports available to the public in a reasonable amount of time. The problems with effective oversight are not limited to the House; however, these would be a good first step to making sure Congress has the tools it needs to provide the kind of oversight that is necessary.

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz
Policy Counsel, POGO

Photograph of Elizabeth Liz Hempowicz is Policy Counsel for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Congressional Oversight, Checks and Balances, Intelligence

Authors: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz

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