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Policy Letter

Civil Society Defends Congressional Oversight

Dear Democratic Leaders Schumer and Pelosi, Vice Chairman Warner, and Ranking Member Schiff:

We, the undersigned 24 organizations, write to share our deep concern that your July 12, 2018 letter to Director of National Intelligence Coats1 undermines the House and Senate intelligence committees and weakens congressional oversight of the intelligence community.

In your letter, you criticize DNI Coats for sharing classified information with the House and Senate intelligence committees, expressing a concern that the communication “could put sources and methods at risk” and that you had previously requested he confine his communications to a “small group of designated members” — presumably, the so-called Gang of Eight.

As you know, the House and Senate intelligence committees were created in the wake of serious abuses by the intelligence agencies with the express purpose of overseeing and making continuing studies of the intelligence activities and programs of the United States government to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution of the laws of the United States. They are intended to be Congress’s eyes and ears. The president is required by law to ensure the committees are fully and currently informed of intelligence activities, including covert actions and any significant intelligence failures.

In very limited instances that concern covert actions, the president (but not the Director of National Intelligence) may restrict access to certain information to the Gang of Eight, but he must provide a written statement of the reasons for doing so. In all other cases, the law accepts that members of these select committees may be trusted with sensitive information — as they must be, in order to conduct effective oversight.

In circumstances where there is concern that any member of Congress has inappropriately released information or intends to do so, both chambers have a robust ethics process of which you could avail yourself.2

Through your letter to DNI Coats, you sanction his bypassing Members of Congress who have specific oversight duties arising from their service on the intelligence committees. This has the effect of unduly narrowing the range of skills and perspectives that can be brought to bear on intelligence matters — especially as the committees are quite deliberately composed to include diverse perspectives. In addition, it sets a precedent for the executive branch to withhold information from the relevant oversight committees on its own initiative or at the behest of committee leaders. This course of action threatens to weaken congressional oversight and the legislative branch’s ability to serve as a proper check on the executive branch.

If you have concerns with the functioning of the intelligence committees or the behavior of its members, you should exercise your authority to address it, refer matters to the appropriate committee, or work to reform the operations of the committees. A broad coalition of organizations has endorsed recommendations to that effect.3 But it is counterproductive to urge the executive branch to limit the information it provides to the duly authorized oversight committees in accordance with the law and in furtherance of Congress’s role as the first branch of government.

Sincerely yours,

American Civil Liberties Union

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law

Campaign for Liberty

Center for Human Rights and Privacy

Council on American-Islamic Relations

Defending Rights and Dissent

Demand Progress Action

DownsizeDC.org, Inc.

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Government Information Watch

Lincoln Network

Media Alliance

National Security Counselors

New America's Open Technology Institute

Oakland Privacy

Open Society Policy Center

Open the Government

Project On Government Oversight

Protect Democracy

R Street Institute

Restore The Fourth, Inc.

RootsAction.org

X-Lab

cc: Members, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Members, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence