A Friendlier Senate Intelligence Committee?

on November 5 | in Intelligence Reform, Oversight, surveillance

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We recently read in both Foreign Policy and Politico that the Senate will become a much friendlier place for the Intelligence Community once the Republicans—specifically Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina—take charge of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). With the election now over, it’s worth revisiting these articles and examining the actual repercussions of new committee leadership.

I disagree with the basic premise here that, “The intel community has spent years being bashed by Senate Democrats.” These articles are confusing the narrow politics of the SSCI Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) report, a subject about which Senate Democrats have certainly clashed with members of the IC, with the actual substance of intelligence oversight. We shouldn’t expect the relationship between SSCI and the intelligence community to change all that much because the relationship was already in better shape than these articles suggest.

Yes, by most accounts, Senator Feinstein, SSCI’s soon to be former Chairman, has a tense relationship with CIA Director John Brennan resulting from conflicts over the EIT report. Those conflicts spilled into the public arena earlier this year when Senator Feinstein took to the Senate floor and aggressively criticized the CIA for “spying” on committee staff. But it is important to realize that at issue here is one Bush-era program that was ended in 2006 and then formally shut down when President Obama took office.

The only thing really at stake with the report is the legacies of those involved in the interrogation program. It is a colloquial matter that doesn’t accurately reflect the relationship between SSCI and the larger intelligence community.

Critics and supporters alike would agree that Senator Feinstein remained a strong advocate for the IC. The SSCI leadership—Democrats and Republicans—remain in lockstep with the community over the fate of key intelligence programs (surveillance, drones, etc.). Committee members might on occasion complain about being left out of the loop, but the relationship between Congress and the IC is far less contentious than it was under President Bush. The current Administration appears to have pursued a strategy of getting buy-in early and often from Congress in order to insulate key intelligence programs from criticisms. In fact, this might be the only area where the current Administration has actually worked effectively with Congress to further its agenda.

By generalizing based on the conflict over the EIT report, these articles mischaracterize the relationship between SSCI and the community. For that reason, I do not expect that relationship to change all that much when the Republicans take control. There will be changes in style and the new Chairman will certainly have his own agenda, but the overall relationship will be similar to that under the current Democratic Chairman.

The big change on the committee will actually come not from any new leadership but rather from the loss of Colorado Senator Mark Udall. Udall and Senator Wyden of Oregon have been the IC’s chief antagonists on SSCI. They represent the true minority views and, while they can’t say much in unclassified settings, both have been extremely effective at using what limited public opportunities they do have to really drive home their views on intelligence issues.

With Udall’s departure, SSCI will become a lonelier place for Senator Wyden and, indeed, a friendlier place for the IC. That might not change the overall SSCI agenda, but it does mean that surveillance reform advocates will lose an important ally.

One final comment – I do wonder about the politics of these articles. We wouldn’t normally see unnamed Senate aides talking about intelligence committee matters, let alone to see those aides quoted in two separate publications. I don’t normally like to speculate about political motive, but, especially given the lack of real substance to these stories, this suggests there is a bit of strategery going on. My idle speculation is that either Senator Burr’s staff is preemptively trying to shore up his SSCI chairmanship or is trying to send signals to the CIA.

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