When the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks issued its report last fall, one of its chief recommendations was a complete overhaul of Congressional oversight, something more thorough and far-reaching than, in their words, “tinkering with the existing structure.”
The commissioners had no illusions about the difficulty of that challenge. But they insisted on it because their investigation turned up a system that was “dysfunctional,” combining a lack of accountability with a generalized lack of expertise.
“The other reforms we have suggested — for the National Counterterrorism Center and National Intelligence Director — will not work if Congressional oversight does not change too,” the commissioners wrote in their final report.
Yet with the Senate poised to confirm Ambassador John Negroponte as the first director of national intelligence, few of the recommendations put forward by the commission have been accepted, let alone adopted, by Congress.
This fate contrasts starkly with Congress’ treatment of other elements of the 9/11 panel’s report. In reorganizing the intelligence community, lawmakers followed the commission’s recommendations almost to the letter.
To some who have been instrumental in the months-long reform efforts, the contrast is instructive and vexing.
“They cannot continue to fumble this issue,” former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the 9/11 commission, said last week. “Once you change the intelligence community, you have to change the oversight community. Congress has dropped the ball.”
Kristen Breitweiser, one of the most active members of the loosely knit alliance of families who suffered from the 9/11 attacks, said she believes that lawmakers have allowed selfish internal interests to overwhelm the need for changes to Congressional oversight.
“Congress certainly won’t do it on its own,” Breitweiser said in an interview last week. “It’s going to take some 9/11 families to go down there and raise havoc to get it done.”
The commission, which included four former Members of Congress, foresaw the obstacles that would lie before them on Capitol Hill.
“Few things are more difficult to change than congressional committee jurisdiction and prerogatives,” the commissioners wrote in their report, comparing these to the boundaries of a Congressional district in their importance to individual Members. “The American people may have to insist that these changes occur, or they may well not happen.”
For the commissioners, the chief — but by no means only — qualm with the structure of oversight was an apparent lack of accountability.
The problem was twofold. Not only did Members on the intelligence panels lack the power and influence needed to actually control the intelligence process on Capitol Hill, but they also had too little authority to genuinely grab hold of the vast intelligence community and define its purpose.
The commissioners put forward a clutch of recommendations aimed at correcting these perceived flaws. First among them was the formation of a joint House-Senate intelligence committee to replace the panels maintained by each of the chambers.
This idea, however, turned out to be a non-starter on Capitol Hill. The natural parochialism of each chamber notwithstanding, Congressional leaders did not buy the argument that the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — the now-defunct Cold War-era panel that commissioners used as a model — was strong because it combined both chambers.
Plan B for the commission was to enable the House and Senate intelligence panels to spend money. This would concentrate power in the hands of committee members, the commissioners reasoned, while creating a far stronger link between decision and action.
This, too, was rejected by Congressional leaders.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that, in some matters related to Congressional oversight — appropriations in particular — commissioners weren’t being practical.
“That ain’t gonna happen. I mean, get real,” Hoekstra said in an interview Friday. The intelligence chairman suggested that giving such a unique power to his committee would open a Pandora’s box in the House. Every committee doing “critical” work — which is to say, every committee — would demand the same powers.
In fact, the House has not yet adopted any of the commission’s recommendations, except one: Its intelligence panel now has an oversight subcommittee.
Hoekstra said the House leadership agreed with the concerns raised about oversight in the commission report and sought resourceful ways to deal with them.
The most significant measure taken, Hoekstra said, was to force four of the Republican Members joining the intelligence committee, Reps. Jo Ann Davis (Va.), John McHugh (N.Y.), Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Mac Thornberry (Texas), to give up their other committee assignments.
“This is a fundamental shift, because it forces these individuals to say, ‘If I’m going to get on this committee, I’m going to get something done,’” Hoekstra said.
Hoekstra’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), said critics who contend that the House has not moved to greatly improve oversight “do not know what they’re talking about.” She cited the intelligence committee’s new oversight panel as a particularly significant change.
“My plan is to make this a major part of the committee,” Harman said.
House leaders took other steps as well, Hoekstra said. They appointed a third appropriator, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), to the intelligence committee — a move intended to tighten the relationship between thought and action on intelligence. The intelligence committee is also asking the House to “significantly beef up” staff resources.
“It’s not all that flashy, but I think these are things that have fundamentally changed the committee,” Hoekstra added. “We’ve thought about [the commission’s recommendations], and we just had a different way of going about it than they did.”
Yet in some areas, the House went directly against the recommendations of the 9/11 panel. While the commission recommended no more than a one-Member advantage for a committee majority, the House GOP increased its own advantage from two to three. The committee also continues to maintain separate staffs for the majority and the minority.
One knowledgeable senior Senate aide, agreeing with critics, said even many of the concrete steps taken to reconfigure oversight in the wake of the commission report have only superficial value.
“The only thing [the Senate leadership] did that had any meaning,” the aide said, “was getting rid of term limits” for the intelligence committee — a measure that was indeed among the commission’s recommendations. (The House did not follow suit.)
The aide said the only step that would have truly strengthened Congressional oversight of intelligence would have been giving the select committee the authority to make appropriations.
As matters currently stand, the intelligence community knows that any decision made at the select committee can be overturned by the actions of a single staffer at the Appropriations Committee — creating a strong incentive to bypass the intelligence panel, the aide said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) appointed a task force of key GOP lawmakers to consider changes to oversight. In contrast to the House, this group, despite dissent from appropriators, actually recommended enabling the intelligence committee to spend money. But the proposal faced heated opposition from Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), prompting a veto from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
With the elimination of term limits and the addition of an oversight subcommittee on intelligence, the Senate has in fact gone slightly further than the House toward adopting the commission’s proposals.
The Senate has also exceeded some of the minimum recommendations: They have, for instance, greatly increased committee staff in order to provide a single liaison aide for each member of the committee.
But in other respects, the Senate and the House have maintained the status quo for oversight. The prospect of an intelligence subcommittee on Appropriations, one seemingly minor compromise measure that had been sought by Senate leaders, is now considered all but dead in the chamber.
Few Members of Congress have shown any interest in making the intelligence budget public — another reform recommended by commissioners. And in each chamber, the number of Members serving on the intelligence committee remains roughly double that which the commissioners considered prudent.
Roemer indicated that he has sought to get the commission’s recommendations a second look on Capitol Hill. To no avail.
“I’ve heard the whole gamut [of excuses],” Roemer said, “from ‘That’s impossible to do’ to ‘We’ll think about it.’”