Former Reps, Senators Agree Congress’ Oversight Is Critical but Flawed
The partisan divide in Congress, intelligence oversight, and foreign meddling through social media were some of the critical topics discussed Monday night at an event hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The panel included two former U.S. House Representatives and two former U.S. Senators, each with extensive experience on their chamber’s intelligence committee. The discussion was aired live on C-SPAN; a recording is at this link.
Schar School dean Mark J. Rozell welcomed an audience of more than 400 people to the event—“The Hill Has Eyes: Congressional Oversight on Intelligence”—at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.
Rozell acknowledged the center’s founder and namesake, Michael V. Hayden, sitting in the front row, followed by a round of applause from the audience. After suffering a stroke in November, Hayden appeared resolute and in good spirits surrounded by his peers.
Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, gave the opening remarks.
“We know at times that Congress can get in its own way of intelligence oversight,” he said. “Recognizing [that], the role of the intelligence community is only going to increase in importance. [Oversight] needs to be done in a thoughtful, reflective, and bipartisan manner much like the kind of leadership General Hayden provided for so many years.”
Michael Morell, Senior Fellow with the Hayden Center and the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, moderated the panel.
“Oversight is important, because the community is made up of organizations operating under a democracy, and there has to be an entity to reassure the American people that they are operating the way they should be,” he said.
Jane Harman (D-Calif.), former U.S. Representative and the first female director, president, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said, “Oversight matters and bipartisanship matters just as much. These committees work much better with bipartisan cooperation.”
While oversight is important, it must be done right, said former U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). “Leave the politics out of the room,” he said.
Former U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), agreed with Rogers. “Politics gets in the way of good intelligence and certainly good oversight,” he said. “It has been much too partisan in the House.”
“The House is a perpetual election machine,” Harman said. “People rotate off the committee when they become experts on intelligence. The expertise and respect for members has declined.”
It was noted that President Trump has been exceedingly critical of the intelligence committees and agencies. “There is a way to be critical of the intelligence community,” said Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), former U.S. Senator. “I wish he would do it privately.”
“I believe there is an obligation on the part of leadership of intelligence communities to rise above partisanship when there is a disconnect with the White House,” added Nelson.
Russian election meddling through social media became a focal point of the 2016 election because “nation states have identified social media as a very cheap, low consequence way of causing trouble for the Americans,” said Rogers.
“As an external threat, this cyber threat is one of the greatest we are going to be facing,” said Nelson. “When an external threat can penetrate identity politics and drive a wedge, that is going to make it difficult to govern.”
The significance of the evening’s discussion was summed up by Chambliss during a post-panel reception.
“The world of intelligence operates so much in a secret world,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to talk to educated people who care about the intelligence community and give them a look behind the curtain.”