During the 1977 House debate to establish a Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, two lawmakers expressed concerns that the new panel could become a third chamber of Congress that would constrain other members’ abilities to make informed decisions on intelligence matters.
Such tensions between the intelligence committees and non-committee members came into stark relief most recently with the illegal disclosure by government contractor Edward Snowden of classified information regarding the intelligence-gathering activities of the National Security Agency. Some members were shocked at what they perceived to be a massive intrusion into citizens’ privacy rights and wondered how much the intelligence committees knew and condoned.
Back in 1977, some members worried that the new committee would issue regulations restricting the open access to committee materials by all members that House rules require of other committees. To finesse the issue, the resolution reported by the Rules Committee provided that the committee “shall, under such regulations as the committee shall prescribe, make any information ... available to any other committee or any other member of the House.” The resolution creating a counterpart Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the previous Congress made access to information by non-committee members discretionary with the committee.
Notwithstanding the more liberal access thrust of the House rule, the new committee confirmed the suspicions of Giaimo and Weiss by ultimately adopting a committee rule more akin to the Senate rule: “Pursuant to the Rules of the House, members who are not members of the committee may be granted access to such classified transcripts, records, data, charts or files of the committee,” upon written notification with specific justification for the request and the need for access. The committee would then determine whether to approve or deny the request.
Flash forward to 2013. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., filed specific requests for information with the intelligence committee in June. When he received no response, he followed with three more letters in July and still received no answer before a House vote late that month to dismantle the NSA’s bulk collection of everyone’s phone records.
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., had a similar experience with information requests about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering, except he did get a response. Like Griffith, he had filed a request in June. Four weeks later he received a letter from House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., informing him that the committee had denied his request “by voice vote.” But committee rules specify that “the Committee shall determine, by record vote, what action it deems appropriate in light of all the circumstances of each request.”
The House and Senate Intelligence committees are currently working on ameliorative legislation to head off moves in both chambers’ Judiciary committees to impose tighter restrictions on the NSA.
The whole drama raises the question of whether the primary responsibility of the intelligence committees is to protect and defend the agencies they are overseeing, or whether it's to protect the integrity of Congress and serve the informational needs of its members. Ironically, the House and Senate Intelligence committees occupy the same secure Capitol Dome quarters as the former Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Perceived as too cozy with the nuclear power industry, it was abolished in 1977.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who chaired the House Intelligence panel in 1985-86, recently wrote: “In the past, the congressional overseers of the intelligence community have been captivated, if not captured, by the people they’re supposed to be supervising.” Speaking of the current controversy over the NSA, Hamilton says, “There is no place for the timidity Congress has shown so far on these issues.”
While Washington “is beginning to debate the proper extent of government eavesdropping powers,” he adds, “it’s hardly as robust a discussion as it should be, but it’s a desperately needed start.” Let us hope that discussion continues, and that the Intelligence committees will welcome and assist in fully airing the issues and in taking the corrective actions needed.