Intelligence Oversight Committees Are Being Stocked With Former Intelligence Agency Employees
from the circle-of-life dept
RESOLVED: this nation’s intelligence oversight is indisputably useless. It’s about 99% joke and 1% Ron Wyden dog-whistle questions that go unanswered for months or years. Committees on both sides of the legislature are composed mostly of surveillance cheerleaders and flak catchers profoundly uninterested in performing actual oversight. Reform efforts tend to take place despite the intelligence committees, rather than because of them. Every so often, positive changes are made for purely partisan reasons.
Super-friendly “oversight” committees aren’t helping hold our nation’s multiple intelligence agencies accountable. But it goes deeper than lawmaking fanboys/girls holding prominent positions in intelligence committees. The desire to limit accountability traces back further than the front-mouths lobbing softballs to IC leaders at Congressional hearings. As Tim Johnson and Ben Wieder report for McClatchy News, the intelligence community has been stocking committees with home teamers for years.
Lawmakers assigned to oversee the sprawling U.S. intelligence apparatus rely strongly on a staff that in recent years has included scores of onetime spooks, analysts and lawyers who previously worked at the spy agencies under scrutiny.
According to a comprehensive analysis by McClatchy, at least one-third, and perhaps far more, of the professional staff members who carry out the work of the House and Senate intelligence committees are themselves veterans of the agencies that the two panels oversee.
Really not a problem, I suppose, if the other two-thirds are staunch civil rights defenders and privacy advocates. But of course they’re not. They’re just more government employees, many of whom find defending the status quo to be a more sensible career path, one that starts with idealism (sometimes) and ends with a pension, with very little forward momentum during the intervening years.
The “intelligence community” term attempts to humanize a hulking behemoth bristling with surveillance apparati, currently hoovering up $80 billion every year. And that estimate is likely on the low end, as these agencies have another, entirely-opaque budget to utilize on top of this.
The other low estimate at work here is McClatchy’s guess at the number of former agency employees currently working for the intelligence oversight committees. It’s not always easy to sniff out the origins of staffers, especially if they’ve possibly spent some time engaged in clandestine activities.
McClatchy’s analysis determined the staffers’ backgrounds based on searches of LinkedIn profiles, congressional records, executive profiles and in a handful of cases, press reports, obituaries or personal interviews in which the former or current committee staff members publicly acknowledged their own intelligence background.
In dozens of cases, McClatchy could not determine whether a given staff member had worked in intelligence. Some have left almost no trace on the internet, itself perhaps a telling sign of a sensitive prior professional life.
According to staffers who spoke to McClatchy, the one-third estimate is way, way off. One said “all but a couple” of staffers he worked with came from intelligence agencies. Others estimated IC oversight market saturation to be 50-75%.
Obviously, a dearth of intelligence experience would be less than useful for oversight committees. Experience is extremely useful but in cases where oversight is already severely lacking, stuffing the roster with IC picks is guaranteed to result in the sort of non-oversight we’ve become accustomed to. Not only are staffers likely to advise against additional accountability and lobby against reform efforts, they’re also likely to know how to ensure any reform efforts are shot full of exploitable holes by the time they hit the president’s desk.
And there’s no good way of fixing this that won’t leave other government committees tied up in policies that prevent them from hiring anyone with subject matter expertise. Pretty much the only thing that can be done is sitting back and marveling at the breadth of the intelligence community’s regulatory capture.