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Since the beginning of the Republic, few debates have been as hotly contested as the one over executive versus legislative powers. At the Constitutional Convention, the founders sought to create a strong executive but check its powers. They left those powers sufficiently ambiguous so that room was left for Congress and the president to struggle over the direction of the nation's security and foreign policies.

The most serious question has centered on whether or not the president needs congressional authorization to wage war. The current status of that debate seems to have settled into a recognition that a president can deploy military forces for small and limited operations, but needs at least congressional support if not explicit authorization for large and more open-ended military operations.

This calculus becomes important in this story as both President Clinton and President Bush chose not to seek a declaration of war on Bin Ladin after he had declared and begun to wage war on us, a declaration that they did not acknowledge publicly. Not until after 9/11 was a congressional authorization sought.

The most substantial change in national security oversight in Congress took place following World War II. The Congressional Reorganization Act of 1946 created the modern Armed Services committees that have become so powerful today. One especially noteworthy innovation was the creation of the Joint House-Senate Atomic Energy Committee, which is credited by many with the development of our nuclear deterrent capability and was also criticized for wielding too much power relative to the executive branch.

Ironically, this committee was eliminated in the 1970s as Congress was undertaking the next most important reform of oversight in response to the Church and Pike investigations into abuses of power. In 1977, the House and Senate created select committees to exercise oversight of the executive branch's conduct of intelligence operations.

The Intelligence Committees

The House and Senate select committees on intelligence share some important characteristics. They have limited authorities. They do not have exclusive authority over intelligence agencies. Appropriations are ultimately determined by the Appropriations committees. The Armed Services committees exercise jurisdiction over the intelligence agencies within the Department of Defense (and, in the case of the Senate, over the Central Intelligence Agency). One consequence is that the rise and fall of intelligence budgets are tied directly to trends in defense spending.

The president is required by law to ensure the congressional Intelligence committees are kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States. The committees allow the CIA to some extent to withhold information in order to protect sources, methods, and operations. The CIA must bring presidentially authorized covert action Findings and Memoranda of Notification to the Intelligence committees, and it must detail its failures. The committees conduct their most important work in closed hearings or briefings in which security over classified material can be maintained.

Members of the Intelligence committees serve for a limited time, a restriction imposed by each chamber. Many members believe these limits prevent committee members from developing the necessary expertise to conduct effective oversight.

Secrecy, while necessary, can also harm oversight. The overall budget of the intelligence community is classified, as are most of its activities. Thus, the Intelligence committees cannot take advantage of democracy's best oversight mechanism: public disclosure. This makes them significantly different from other congressional oversight committees, which are often spurred into action by the work of investigative journalists and watchdog organizations.

Adjusting to the Post-Cold War Era

The unexpected and rapid end of the Cold War in 1991 created trauma in the foreign policy and national security community both in and out of government. While some criticized the intelligence community for failing to forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union (and used this argument to propose drastic cuts in intelligence agencies), most recognized that the good news of being relieved of the substantial burden of maintaining a security structure to meet the Soviet challenge was accompanied by the bad news of increased insecurity. In many directions, the community faced threats and intelligence challenges that it was largely unprepared to meet.

So did the intelligence oversight committees. New digitized technologies, and the demand for imagery and continued capability against older systems, meant the need to spend more on satellite systems at the expense of human efforts. In addition, denial and deception became more effective as targets learned from public sources what our intelligence agencies were doing. There were comprehensive reform proposals of the intelligence community, such as those offered by Senators Boren and McCurdy. That said, Congress still took too little action to address institutional weaknesses.106

With the Cold War over, and the intelligence community roiled by the Ames spy scandal, a presidential commission chaired first by former secretary of defense Les Aspin and later by former secretary of defense Harold Brown examined the intelligence community's future. After it issued recommendations addressing the DCI's lack of personnel and budget authority over the intelligence community, the Intelligence committees in 1996 introduced implementing legislation to remedy these problems.

The Department of Defense and its congressional authorizing committees rose in opposition to the proposed changes. The President and DCI did not actively support these changes. Relatively small changes made in 1996 gave the DCI consultative authority and created a new deputy for management and assistant DCIs for collection and analysis. These reforms occurred only after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence took the unprecedented step of threatening to bring down the defense authorization bill. Indeed, rather than increasing the DCI's authorities over national intelligence, the 1990s witnessed movement in the opposite direction through, for example, the transfer of the CIA's imaging analysis capability to the new imagery and mapping agency created within the Department of Defense.

Congress Adjusts

Congress as a whole, like the executive branch, adjusted slowly to the rise of transnational terrorism as a threat to national security. In particular, the growing threat and capabilities of Bin Ladin were not understood in Congress. As the most representative branch of the federal government, Congress closely tracks trends in what public opinion and the electorate identify as key issues. In the years before September 11, terrorism seldom registered as important. To the extent that terrorism did break through and engage the attention of the Congress as a whole, it would briefly command attention after a specific incident, and then return to a lower rung on the public policy agenda.

Several points about Congress are worth noting. First, Congress always has a strong orientation toward domestic affairs. It usually takes on foreign policy and national security issues after threats are identified and articulated by the administration. In the absence of such a detailed--and repeated--articulation, national security tends not to rise very high on the list of congressional priorities. Presidents are selective in their use of political capital for international issues.

In the decade before 9/11, presidential discussion of and congressional and public attention to foreign affairs and national security were dominated by other issues--among them, Haiti, Bosnia, Russia, China, Somalia, Kosovo, NATO enlargement, the Middle East peace process, missile defense, and globalization. Terrorism infrequently took center stage; and when it did, the context was often terrorists' tactics--a chemical, biological, nuclear, or computer threat--not terrorist organizations.107

Second, Congress tends to follow the overall lead of the president on budget issues with respect to national security matters. There are often sharp arguments about individual programs and internal priorities, but by and large the overall funding authorized and appropriated by the Congress comes out close to the president's request. This tendency was certainly illustrated by the downward trends in spending on defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs in the first part of the 1990s. The White House, to be sure, read the political signals coming from Capitol Hill, but the Congress largely acceded to the executive branch's funding requests. In the second half of the decade, Congress appropriated some 98 percent of what the administration requested for intelligence programs. Apart from the Gingrich supplemental of $1.5 billion for overall intelligence programs in fiscal year 1999, the key decisions on overall allocation of resources for national security issues in the decade before 9/11--including counter-terrorism funding--were made in the president's Office of Management and Budget.108

Third, Congress did not reorganize itself after the end of the Cold War to address new threats. Recommendations by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress were implemented, in part, in the House of Representatives after the 1994 elections, but there was no reorganization of national security functions. The Senate undertook no appreciable changes. Traditional issues--foreign policy, defense, intelligence--continued to be handled by committees whose structure remained largely unaltered, while issues such as transnational terrorism fell between the cracks. Terrorism came under the jurisdiction of at least 14 different committees in the House alone, and budget and oversight functions in the House and Senate concerning terrorism were also splintered badly among committees. Little effort was made to consider an integrated policy toward terrorism, which might range from identifying the threat to addressing vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure; and the piecemeal approach in the Congress contributed to the problems of the executive branch in formulating such a policy.109

Fourth, the oversight function of Congress has diminished over time. In recent years, traditional review of the administration of programs and the implementation of laws has been replaced by "a focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention." The unglamorous but essential work of oversight has been neglected, and few members past or present believe it is performed well. DCI Tenet told us: "We ran from threat to threat to threat.... [T]here was not a system in place to say,'You got to go back and do this and this and this.'" Not just the DCI but the entire executive branch needed help from Congress in addressing the questions of counter-terrorism strategy and policy, looking past day-to-day concerns. Members of Congress, however, also found their time spent on such everyday matters, or in looking back to investigate mistakes, and often missed the big questions--as did the executive branch. Staff tended as well to focus on parochial considerations, seeking to add or cut funding for individual (often small) programs, instead of emphasizing comprehensive oversight projects.110

Fifth, on certain issues, other priorities pointed Congress in a direction that was unhelpful in meeting the threats that were emerging in the months leading up to 9/11. Committees with oversight responsibility for aviation focused overwhelmingly on airport congestion and the economic health of the airlines, not aviation security. Committees with responsibility for the INS focused on the Southwest border, not on terrorists. Justice Department officials told us that committees with responsibility for the FBI tightly restricted appropriations for improvements in information technology, in part because of concerns about the FBI's ability to manage such projects. Committees responsible for South Asia spent the decade of the 1990s imposing sanctions on Pakistan, leaving presidents with little leverage to alter Pakistan's policies before 9/11. Committees with responsibility for the Defense Department paid little heed to developing military responses to terrorism and stymied intelligence reform. All committees found themselves swamped in the minutiae of the budget process, with little time for consideration of longer-term questions, or what many members past and present told us was the proper conduct of oversight.111

Each of these trends contributed to what can only be described as Congress's slowness and inadequacy in treating the issue of terrorism in the years before 9/11. The legislative branch adjusted little and did not restructure itself to address changing threats.112 Its attention to terrorism was episodic and splintered across several committees. Congress gave little guidance to executive branch agencies, did not reform them in any significant way, and did not systematically perform oversight to identify, address, and attempt to resolve the many problems in national security and domestic agencies that became apparent in the aftermath of 9/11.

Although individual representatives and senators took significant steps, the overall level of attention in the Congress to the terrorist threat was low. We examined the number of hearings on terrorism from January 1998 to September 2001. The Senate Armed Services Committee held nine--four related to the attack on the USS Cole. The House Armed Services Committee also held nine, six of them by a special oversight panel on terrorism. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its House counterpart both held four. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in addition to its annual worldwide threat hearing, held eight; its House counterpart held perhaps two exclusively devoted to counter-terrorism, plus the briefings by its terrorist working group. The Senate and House intelligence panels did not raise public and congressional attention on Bin Ladin and al Qaeda prior to the joint inquiry into the attacks of September 11, perhaps in part because of the classified nature of their work. Yet in the context of committees that each hold scores of hearings every year on issues in their jurisdiction, this list is not impressive. Terrorism was a second or third-order priority within the committees of Congress responsible for national security.113

In fact, Congress had a distinct tendency to push questions of emerging national security threats off its own plate, leaving them for others to consider. Congress asked outside commissions to do the work that arguably was at the heart of its own oversight responsibilities.114 Beginning in 1999, the reports of these commissions made scores of recommendations to address terrorism and homeland security but drew little attention from Congress. Most of their impact came after 9/11.

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© 2004-2012, David A. Desrosiers. unauthorized reproduction of this work is forbidden by law.