Exposing Corruption and Preventing Abuse of Power

Has Political Spending Defanged Intel Watchdogs in Congress?

The members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are charged with overseeing U.S. intelligence programs. They are supposed to be a check against fraud, waste, and abuse in these top-secret programs, on which the government spends tens of billions of dollars every year, about 70 percent of which is spent on contracts.

However, the disclosures by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have called into question the independence and diligence of these purported watchdogs. And now, a new report by the nonprofit research organization MapLight further stokes suspicion that these watchdogs have become lapdogs. Reviewing Federal Election Commission (FEC) data from January 1, 2005 to October 4, 2013, MapLight found that the current members of the House and Senate intelligence committees received a total of $3.7 million in campaign contributions from the PACs and employees of the Pentagon’s 20 largest intelligence contractors (as ranked by USASpending.gov on September 26, 2013).

MapLight found that members of the committees from Maryland, where the NSA is headquartered, topped the list of recipients. Representative Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Ranking Member on the House committee, received $364,600 from the top intelligence contractors. The second-largest recipient was Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who received $210,000. Senator Mikulski not only sits on the Senate intelligence committee, she also chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Overall, MapLight found that Democrats and Republicans received roughly the same amount: $1.82 million to Democrats, and $1.86 million to Republicans.

Contracting giant Lockheed Martin was the single largest contributor, pumping nearly $800,000 into intelligence committee members’ campaign coffers. Northrop Grumman gave the second-largest amount with $753,000, followed by Honeywell International with $715,000. Notably, a large number of contractors among the top 20 have won hundreds of millions of dollars in Defense Department intelligence contracts since 2005 yet gave nothing or next to nothing in campaign contributions to House and Senate intelligence committee members during that period. In fact, half of the top 20 either made no contributions or gave less than $10,000. Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, gave $12,400 and received $123 million in contracts.

Because much of their work is conducted behind closed doors, it is difficult to precisely measure the effect of campaign spending on the intelligence committees’ oversight functions. We do know, however, that the committees are staunchly protecting the intelligence agencies and their programs from radical reforms. At the same time, individual Members such as Representative Ruppersberger are not shy about expressing their displeasure with whistleblowers/leakers like Snowden. This month, The New Yorker caustically observed in a lengthy profile of the intelligence community that the Senate intelligence committee “treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols.”

Meanwhile, Senate and House Judiciary Committee leaders are advancing legislation to rein in the intelligence agencies’ activities and create more oversight. POGO supports one of those efforts—the USA Freedom Act.

In Washington, committee assignments come with their own unique constituencies seeking to influence the members through campaign contributions. Some constituencies have deeper pockets than others. While it is impossible to outright ban these arrangements, their abuses could be curbed through increased transparency. The data MapLight analyzed was drawn from FEC campaign contribution reports. But as we’ve seen in the past couple election cycles, the sources of hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions remain in the dark. That probably suits the secretive intelligence contracting industry and its overseers in Congress just fine.