Spooks on the Hill: Senate, House intelligence panels rely heavily on ex-spies
“There are big areas in the intelligence community that very few people in Congress have any idea of,” said Arthur Rizer, a national security expert at the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Much of what the two committees look at must be done in secret. Most hearings unfold behind closed doors with no television cameras or media. Between hearings, when lawmakers read classified information, they don’t do so in their own offices. They must go to a secure room known as a SCIF (pronounced “skiff”), an acronym for “sensitive compartmented information facility,” a military term. It’s not just the top-secret documents that remain in the SCIF. Lawmakers must limit all conversations about top-secret matters to the secure room.
Incoming legislators with little background in national security matters often cling to former employees from the intelligence community to guide them through issues and hearings.
“Because the community is so opaque and so much happens behind the SCIF door, they (former intelligence people) have connections to people and they can find out information,” said Eoyang, who is vice president for the National Security Program at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington.
Moreover, legislators, many of whom have no prior experience in intelligence, can end up tied in knots seeking explanations from agency leaders appearing before them.
“It was like a game of 20 questions. They’ll only answer if the question is asked precisely,” Eoyang said. “They say things like, ‘We don’t do that under that authority.’”
Eoyang said that the links between intelligence agencies and former employees serving on the committee were a matter of occasional concern as staff members rotated off and were rehired by one of the agencies.
“You worry about people getting captured. They have particular programs they like. They have contractors they like. It’s going native, clientitis, whatever you want to call it,” she said.
The two committees have near-exclusive oversight of the intelligence community. Even the General Accounting Office — Congress’s auditing arm — is not allowed to evaluate or investigate intelligence programs if such work delves into sources and methods. This was a decision of the oversight committees themselves.
Rizer said it was logical that the leaders of the select committees would employ staff with deep experience in the CIA, NSA or the handful of other three-letter security agencies. The veterans generally sever professional ties before coming on to the committees.
“It can be really good to come from the intelligence community because they know where the bodies are buried and they know which issues to look at,” Rizer said.