OpEd in Politico, 12 May 2011

Annual intelligence funding is a must

The successful operation that eliminated Osama bin Laden has been widely praised for bringing together a vast array of intelligence resources to meet a single vital goal. This success highlights the need for robust congressional oversight to ensure that we learn from our successes, just as much as we need to learn from the past failures that gave rise to modern congressional intelligence oversight.

There is tension between our open society and the need for intelligence. The American people demand transparency in their institutions. Yet secrecy is critical to the work of gathering intelligence and protecting the country. By providing strong and effective oversight, the congressional intelligence committees act as the trustees of all Americans.

That strong and effective oversight is difficult, if not impossible, without an annual intelligence authorization bill. Congress must get back in the habit of passing that bill every year — and that needs to start now, with the 2011 bill.

The oversight committees were created in the 1970s, in the aftermath of a series of troubling revelations about intelligence activities — ranging from covert programs to assassinate foreign leaders to collecting information about the political activities of U.S. citizens. After these scandals, Congress and the American people lost confidence in our intelligence community and in the previous congressional oversight system.

The House and Senate intelligence committees were created to rebuild that trust. They now must take on an equally strong role to reinforce our reinvigorated operations.

With their unique access to some of the most sensitive activities in our government, these committees have multiple roles. They are watchdogs, making sure past abuses do not recur. Just as important, the committees work to ensure our intelligence agencies do everything they can to protect us and spend the taxpayer dollars in their classified budgets wisely.

The annual intelligence authorization bill is the committees’ most important tool for conducting meaningful oversight of the intelligence community’s sensitive activities on behalf of the American people. It provides a unique opportunity to review and to make changes in the spending plans and activities of all U.S. intelligence.

The bill is the essence of the “power of the purse” that Congress uses as a check and balance on executive power. Unfortunately, from 2005 until 2010, Congress failed to pass an intelligence authorization bill.

To be sure, the intelligence agencies still received their funding from Congress, via the annual appropriations bill but without the policy guidance and oversight that come in the intelligence authorization bill — essentially, money with no strings attached.

Every year that Congress failed to pass the annual intelligence authorization bill, the intelligence committees’ authority diminished and intelligence oversight suffered. This lapse came at the worst possible time. The 9/11 Commission’s report, while noting the importance of congressional intelligence oversight, described it as “dysfunctional.”

In the 2004 intelligence reform bill, Congress made comprehensive, historic changes, including the creation of the director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center. But it then failed to pass an intelligence authorization bill for six more years.

The DNI and NCTC are large organizations with complicated jurisdictions and legal authorities. As with any new government agency, Congress should have weighed in to adjust the law governing those authorities — as inevitable unanticipated conflicts and challenges arose during implementation.

Instead, the DNI, the NCTC and the rest of the intelligence community have been muddling through with informal accommodations and arrangements. The result was less than ideal.

Congress can’t leave six-year gaps if the law is to keep pace with new threats and changes in technology. Reviewing intelligence performance on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, the Robb-Silberman Commission noted that meaningful intelligence reform to reduce the likelihood of similar intelligence failures requires sustained oversight from outside observers — like the congressional intelligence committees.

The committees also must identify what went well, like the bin Laden operation — and ensure that we can repeat those successes. The intelligence community must keep pace with the ever-changing threats and challenges to our national security.

In the middle of fast-moving events, it is sometimes difficult to step back and look at the larger intelligence program or to give some thought to where we want intelligence to be several years from now. Taking this broader and longer look is one basic function of the annual intelligence authorization bills.

An annual intelligence bill is all the more important as we enter a period of fiscal austerity. The intelligence committees, which are Congress’s experts on intelligence, must play the leading role to ensure that budget cuts do not endanger our intelligence mission.

Congress should have completed its 2011 authorization bill last year. And because there are only six months left in the 2011 fiscal year, some argue that Congress should focus on the 2012 bill instead. This is misguided. Congressional oversight of intelligence cannot wait another six months.

With the 2011 bill coming to the House floor Thursday, Congress has a chance to get the annual congressional intelligence authorization process back on track. We must pass that bill through the House and Senate and get it to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature — and get back in the habit of doing it every year. We can’t go another year without an intelligence bill.

Mark M. Lowenthal served as staff director of the House intelligence committee and as an assistant director of central intelligence. He is now president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, which provides education and training for intelligence and national security issues.