No More Snowdens? Start by Reforming the House Intelligence Committee

Last Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI) issued a report condemning Edward Snowden and its members unanimously urged President Obama to decline public calls to grant him a pardon. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, who received NSA documents from Snowden, damned the HPSCI’s report as “aggressively dishonest,” ticking off a fistful of errors that swell by the day.

More damning than the report’s apparent errors and falsehoods, however, is the committee’s missed opportunityto perform any reflection or self-criticism concerning their own role in the Snowden matter,” in the words of Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. What would happen if the HPSCI held up a mirror?

Well, to start, former Congressman Rush Holt, who served on the committee, wrote in 2014 that “most members of the committee see their role as enabling the intelligence agencies to operate unencumbered.” Only rarely does it check the overexertion of power by the executive branch. This is the opposite of what Congress intended when it created the HPSCI in the 1970s. 

The HPSCI’s upside-down perspective is not entirely its fault. The committee reflects its context, an environment shaped by the rules of the House of Representatives and congressional leadership, which push the Intelligence Committee towards extraordinary deference. 

No less an authority than Adam Schiff, ranking member on the HPSCI, identified key aspects of the committee–its small size, the inability to use personal office staff on many matters, and a dearth of outside validators to provide insight into Intelligence Community claims–as impediments to more vigorous oversight.* With these resource constraints, and given the enormous size of the Intelligence Community and the tiny committee staff, it’s little surprise the HPSCI is locked in orbit around the intelligence agencies.

The HPSCI’s jurisdictional posturing—its sharp-elbowed response to shared responsibilities with other committees—gravely undermines congressional oversight as well. The HPSCI’s behavior encourages the Intelligence Community to devalue other committees and fight to limit the role of Congress’s investigatory agency, the Government Accountability Office. Alas, the committee focuses more on fighting disclosure of information than on abuses of power. And the committee’s leadership has occasionally threatened members of Congress who attempt to discuss publicly-reported intelligence matters and at times have given the runaround to members when they ask for information held by the committee.

Altogether, this results in the HPSCI working in a vacuum. Unlike other committees, HPSCI members are chosen by the Speaker of the House and the Minority Leader, who select members with a limited range of perspectives. While the House rules require four members of the HPSCI to be “cross-seated,” i.e. to serve on certain other committees, that requirement often is waived. For example, the Judiciary committee currently lacks a representative on the HPSCI. In addition, committee members do not have the staff assistance they need to be effective in a closed environment. Requests for staff designees—staff hired by individual members of HPSCI to do committee-related work—have so far been turned down. Such an arrangement, which exists in the Senate, would allow members to pursue their own lines of inquiry without having to rely on committee staff, who are hired by and reflect the priorities of the chair and ranking member.

This all is fixable. This past week a 33-member coalition of civil society organizations urged the House to strengthen congressional oversight of the intelligence committee; and a bipartisan quartet issued a White Paper containing detailed recommendations on how the House should update its rules to improve oversight. Among the highlights: provide staff designees to HPSCI members, change how committee members are chosen so they reflect the interests of other committees and better represent the entire House; and empower rank-and-file members of the House to have the information and support they need to fulfill their legislative and oversight duties.

Relevant to the committee’s Snowden declaration, the White Paper urges the House to establish secure mechanisms for whistleblowers to talk to members of Congress, including creating a congressional whistleblower ombudsman. It recommends more resources be provided for the HPSCI to keep track of requests to the Intelligence Community and to help the House understand its inherent constitutional oversight powers. The Paper also calls for the creation of a select committee to explore how to strengthen congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community.

No matter how well intentioned, the HPSCI’s narrow perspective does the Intelligence Community a disservice. A committee focused singularly on unleashing the Intelligence Community, and that lacks insight into its own lapses, dooms its charges to a cycle of revelation, scandal, and failure. The best way to protect the legitimate operations of the Intelligence Community is rigorous oversight combined with limits that reflect the values of the American people. We must change the way the House of Representatives operates and strengthen the House Intelligence Committee to ensure that we do not need any more Snowdens.

* This sentence originally read: “No less an authority than Bob Litt, the General Counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has said House leadership does not give the HPSCI enough resources.” A review of video from the event confirms the quotation’s accuracy, and the recollection of several attendees is that Mr. Litt appeared sincere. Nevertheless, Mr. Litt contacted the author to say his statement was not intended to be a serious response of the resources question. He points to his declaration, elsewhere in the conversation, that the HPSCI has ample staff, but says he otherwise has not taken a public position on whether the HPSCI has sufficient resources (beyond the staff question).

 

About the Author(s)

Daniel Schuman

Policy Director at Demand Progress