Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: Current Structure and Alternatives


Publication Date: September 2008

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Government



Interest in congressional oversight of intelligence has risen again in 2007, in part because of the House Democratic majority's pledge to enact the remaining recommendations from the U.S. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the 9/11 Commission. Its conclusions in 2004 set the stage for reconsideration of the problems affecting Congress's structure in this area. The commission's unanimous report, covering a wide range of issues, concluded that congressional oversight of intelligence was "dysfunctional" and proposed two distinct solutions. These were, (1) creation of a joint committee on intelligence (JCI), modeled after the defunct Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), with authority to report legislation to each chamber; or (2) enhanced status and power for the existing select committees on intelligence, by making them standing committees and granting both authorization and appropriations authority.

Congress's interest in a joint committee on intelligence dates to 1948 and the early years of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Similar recommendations have arisen in the meantime, although the lion's share were made before separate intelligence committees were established in the House (1977) and Senate (1976). The numerous proposals for a joint committee on intelligence, which would end the two existing intelligence panels, moreover, vary significantly across a number of dimensions and raise competing viewpoints over practical matters and matters of principle.

Although it did not adopt either of the 9/11 Commission proposals, Congress has pursued other initiatives for changing its intelligence oversight structure and capabilities. This has occurred through the chambers' leadership, existing committees, and a Senate bipartisan working group, leading to that chamber restructuring its oversight panels. In the 110th Congress (H.Res. 35), the House altered its arrangements when it created a Select Intelligence Oversight Panel on the Appropriations Committee, a hybrid structure that is perhaps unique in the annals of Congress. The new 13-member panel combines members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Appropriations to study and make recommendations to relevant appropriations subcommittees, including the Defense Subcommittee on the annual intelligence community appropriations. Other proposals, some with a long heritage, include clarifying and expanding the independent authority of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) over the intelligence community, particularly the CIA. Additional options are to place the CIA expressly under the Government Performance and Results Act and increase the coordinative capabilities and reporting of relevant inspectors general.

This report first describes the current select committees on intelligence and then covers the former Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, often cited as a model for a counterpart on intelligence. The study also sets forth proposed characteristics for a joint committee on intelligence, differences among these, and their pros and cons. The report, to be updated as events dictate, also examines other actions and alternatives affecting congressional oversight in the field.