Notwithstanding the comity on display at the recent Senate intelligence committee Annual Threat Hearing, reports that Republican Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Nunes ordered a physical wall be built in the shared office space between Republican and Democratic Professional Staff Members are distressing but not surprising. This decision might be for the best.
Building a physical barrier in once-common space makes formal what many of us who worked on one of the two intelligence committees have known for a long time. The committees, like other congressional committees, are bipartisan, not non-partisan. Chairman Nunes may be doing great harm to the critical, trusted relationships on the committee and with intelligence community professionals, but shedding the veneer of non-partisanship may be healthy for all. It may even increase clarity about who does what on these unique committees.
The Senate and House Intelligence Committees were established in the late 1970s, following the Church and Pike Committees’ investigations of CIA and other intelligence agency activities during the Watergate scandal. The Congress did not have effective means to do oversight of the intelligence community, and the nation’s trust in government paid a price.
There are 22 Members on the House intelligence committee, and 15 on the Senate intelligence committee. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the nation, member composition was modified to ensure that at least some members also serve on related committees, such as armed services, judiciary, and appropriations.
Intelligence oversight is unique and challenging on many fronts. Most fundamentally, the framework for oversight is the explicit understanding that a small subset of members would be informed about the nation’s most sensitive secrets, and the rest would not. Members trusting other members to do the nation’s business when the body as a whole is accountable is always a risky proposition. And when the committee appears dysfunctional and overtly political, as is the case today on the House intelligence committee, the framework for trust comes under great stress.
The Congress has the right and responsibility to understand what the executive branch is doing with appropriated funds and authorized activities. But that right entails responsibility. Oversight means being read into some extraordinarily sensitive (and often successful) clandestine and covert programs. Leaks risk lives and operational success. For the large part, members and staff have done an excellent job keeping secrets, and avoiding public statements that hint at classified activities.
Intelligence oversight means the circle of sharing has to be small. Committee members and staff are not allowed to share information with other colleagues (except for leadership). Other than yesterday’s annual, open annual threat hearings, personal office staff are unwitting as to what takes place behind committee doors. This is an issue of frustration to those closest to members, such as their chiefs of staffs and communications directors.
I was frustrated that I could not get some sense of committee activities when I first went to Capitol Hill as an executive branch fellow with a TOP SECRET/CODEWORD-level clearance. I wanted to be an effective national security staffer for my senator and being in the dark about what he was doing multiple hours each week in my generalized area of responsibility was difficult. But I came to fully appreciate why the sharing circle needed to be so small when I joined the Senate intelligence committee in 2005. The breadth of access is staggering, and consequences of leaks great.
But one fact of committee life is that members and staff are still Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Congress is Congress and oversight is an amalgamation of policy, priorities and politics. It is the people’s business, and members maintaining their party affiliation is appropriate for our pluralistic, representative form of government.
While nearly all other congressional committees have well-understood majority and minority staffs (and share unclassified information with member offices), the intelligence committees are ostensibly non-partisan. Being non-partisan means all staff technically work for the chairman.
I formally reported to an overtly partisan person of the opposite party’s leadership team. That person wanted me to initiate partisan investigations. I was chosen for this to give the veneer that the effort was non-partisan. Fortunately, I had enough Member top-cover to avoid this pernicious direction. This would not have happened to me on other committees, where I would be employed by the majority or minority. Other committees have parallel staffs and separate office space for each party, recognizing the majority party has larger staff, the exclusive ability to call votes, select hearing topics and determine witness lists.
This is not to say that professional staff on the intelligence committees do not work (and socialize) well together across party lines, and that there are not efficiencies in a unified chain of command. The Senate intelligence committee appears to be largely rising above of the fray on Russia, but this is not always the case. I recall too vividly how partisan the committee was during the 2003 Iraq war and detainee treatment investigations. Investigations were starved of resources and overseen by ostensibly non-partisans wanting to thwart comprehensive reviews.
That said, there was nothing as egregious during my time as there is now on the House intelligence committee. Perhaps it is best that there be a physical barrier separating the office space of the staffs. It is a manifestation of today’s reality. It may even bring back some normalcy to its internal activities.