Congressional Oversight of the Intelligence Community - Paper and discussion

I am taking a major in Intelligence Studies. I am sharing the work I do there here, and at the blog for my first masters, Grad School Fool. You'll note there is little discussion of the Deep State in these posts. Although I did my final paper for the class regarding the Deep State (or public perception thereof), for most of these discussions, I stuck to the "school" perspective.

Image Source - C-span


Let’s look at a little background before we get into the “greatest” challenges regarding Congressional Oversight of the Intelligence Community.

To begin with, Congressional control of the IC is one of three governmental control mechanisms in our system of checks and balances. Puyvelde (2013) notes that “for political and structural reasons, a legislature alone hardly provides enough ground to build a stable system of intelligence accountability” as he notes the roles of the Executive and the Judicial branches. The PBS video (2010) also brings to light that Congress “mirrors” the control problems of the IC. And even though the 9/11 Commission made a recommendation that congressional oversight be strengthened and streamlined, former Senator Gorton in that video points out that there are anywhere between 88-100 committees and subcommittees regarding IC oversight.

I would argue that this is due to Congress also “mirroring” the greater politics of the country at large to a greater degree than the Executive branch. So Congressional politics will be far more influenced by special interests. For an in-depth examination of how special interests have molded Executive/Congressional development and management of our various federal agencies, I’ll suggest James. Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It. Instead of listing (or even trying to list) all the special interests that might partake in the game, I’ll discuss the three major motivations behind special interests.

First of all, there is rent-seeking, then there is do-gooding, and finally there is tribalism. The first two motivations are always detrimental to good governance, and the third may be bad, good, or neutral depending on the cultural/political values that define the tribe.

Rent-seeking in government usually goes back to regulatory (or state) capture or the bribery of politicians by business interests, but Olson (1982) suggests a “theory of distributional coalitions” which posits that rent-seeking/special interest “coalitions” in government itself tend to pursue only the interests of their own members.

There is serious dearth of academic research on the concept of “do-gooding”. I will summarize it as rent-seeking for social capital. A quick and dirty example would be the issues with homelessness associated with Democrat party politics in some of our cities.

There is even a concept introduced by Yandle (1999) in 1983 of “Bootleggers and Baptists” which address “alliances” of do-gooders with rent-seekers.

As far as tribalism, we can see both Republicans and Democrats engaged in political tribalism, with a thousand different variations and sub-group rivalries. (As for me, I am fairly obviously a minarchist, a Constitutionalist, a Jacksonian, and a veteran ;>... these values drive my biases and actions).

So while that seems like the long way around to get to the point, it should provide context for the problems that Congress faces in it’s portion of IC control.

Erwin (2013) summarizes surface issues with IC oversight:

  • Consolidation and redundancy
  • Information security and management
  • Intelligence support to counterterrorism and operations

However, considering the underlying politics we should also look at:

  • Tension with the Executive branch
  • Coalitions of politicians with IC managers
  • The necessity of appeasing key special interest groups who goals may not jibe with national security.
  • Internal conflict between partisan coalitions, or “tribes” (See Gorton’s statement regarding the Church Committee in the PBS video)

And what else are we missing in this discussion? Oh yes, the media. Our required reading this week focuses heavily on the media, as it should. Bypassing the possibility of media alliances with political parties, the link between how the media portrays an intelligence or natsec event and public or special interest pressure on Congress becomes quite clear.

The best example that comes to mind is former NSA Ben Rhodes bragging about how easy it was to manipulate the media (Farhi, 2016), although focusing more specifically on intelligence matters beings us the case of James Wolfe, a SSCI staffer whose political leaking of classified data was punished with two months in jail.

Erwin, M. C. (2013). Intelligence Issues for Congress [RL33539]. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from

Farhi, P. (2016, May 6). Obama official says he pushed a ‘narrative’ to media to sell the Iran nuclear deal. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Olson, M. (1982). The Rise and Decline of Nations. Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)

PBS. (2010). U.S. Intelligence Oversight: Is Congress the Problem? Retrieved from

VAN Puyvelde, D. V. (2013). Intelligence Accountability and the Role of Public Interest Groups in the United States. Intelligence and National Security, 28(2), 139–158.

Wilson, J. (1991). Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books.

Yandle, B. (1999). Bootleggers and Baptists in Retrospect. Regulation, 22(3).


Another possibility in media/IC/Congressional relations is the use of selective and/or "anonymous" leaks with friendly media outlets to push a policy narrative.
The media plays an important role in American politics, but it has to be an unbiased media ;>

On top of the "normal" problems associated with efficient intelligence, our system is based on checks and balances which allow a lot of different interests to gain influence on the structure (and therefore the capability) of the IC. That is compounded by partisanship.
We have created additional layers of law which adds complexity to the original system of checks and balances, instead of relying on the tools provided in the Constitution. Congress, for example, always had the "power of the purse", and impeachment can be a political, not a legal process.
So, even if there was a "perfect" way to run the IC, our political process makes it unlikely that we'll get there. That, considering how dangerous an intelligence agency can be, is not necessarily a bad thing.


" for social capital..."

What an exquisitely appropriate definition. That's all virtue signaling is.