Perverting the Purpose of Congressional Oversight

Early in my son’s elementary school career I routinely got notes from his teachers asking me to stop by the following morning.

“What happened,” I would ask him? I’d listen to his story.

The next morning I would talk with the teacher.

Only after I’d heard both sides, I’d make up my own mind about what actually happened and how I should react.

You will find an analogy in the charges and counter-charges between the Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee over the FBI’s surveillance of Carter Page.

I am convinced that the truth lies in the middle – between what I call “dueling memos”.

The specifics of the Carter Page FISA warrant and the two memos that claim to interpret that surveillance are of less consequence. The incontrovertible fact is that both Democrats and Republicans on the Committee have abused Congress’s important oversight role for transparently political motives.

The committee’s objective should have been to determine the facts on a bi-partisan basis and in co-operation with Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI.

If they concluded the foreign intelligence surveillance process permitted an abuse of Mr. Page’s constitutional rights, they should have worked with DOJ and the FBI to craft a legislative remedy to prevent similar future abuse and then brought an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the recent Patriot Act renewal process.

Putting the Brakes on Intelligence Activities

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was passed in 1978 — in the wake of disturbing revelations of US intelligence abuses leaked to the press associated with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal – writ large.

In testimony before a 1975 committee chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church (D), Americans were shocked to learn the US Army had spied on Americans in America.

Further, the Church Committee and other Senate committees – including the Watergate investigation — uncovered CIA domestic operations against anti-Vietnam War protesters. These activities violated several US laws.

More alarming, press leaks and Congressional investigation found the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco was not the only CIA conducted attempted coup against a foreign government or assassination of foreign leaders.

It was clear to Congress much closer oversight over the national intelligence community was urgently needed. Intelligence oversight that strictly balances national security with protecting the rights of individual Americans began with the first Permanent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1976 leading to the 1978 legislation.

To protect the national security, the legislation established a system of permanent congressional oversight of each individual intelligence agency in the US government and over any co-operation or co-ordination between the separate intelligence agencies.

To protect the rights of individual Americans who might come under scrutiny from one or more of these intelligence agencies, Congress established the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court system.


The nature of intelligence assumes that most of the oversight would be conducted “behind closed doors” by members of Congress and others with appropriate security clearances and safe guards.

As citizens, we should be able to trust the committee members are acting in our (collective) best interests.

Oversight is intended to continuously improve the performance of our intelligence agencies:

  • Insure sufficient resources (budget) are allocated to each agency’s mission
  • Insure each agency is fully compliant with Constitutional and lawful restrictions
  • Insure investigation of any potential overreach or unlawful conduct by any agency personnel is dealt with through civil service administrative practices
  • Identify any opportunities for improved outcomes for the national security

Dueling Memos

In my career, I have taken many corporate management teams through detailed post-mortems. These exercises are conducted after situations that have perceived to be extraordinarily successful of to have failed.

The objective is not to find fault or award promotions.

The objective is to find facts and to use those facts to develop corrective actions driven by those facts.

The facts of the FISA warrant to monitor the electronic communications of Carter Page should have been investigated and adjudicated by the House Intelligence Committee exactly in the manner suggested by FBI Director Christopher Wray. He asked for, and was refused, an opportunity to provide a briefing to clarify why and what triggered the FBI interest in Mr. Page.

In closed door testimony a flow chart of events should have been examined — each step in the flow chart annotated with the factual evidence and surrounding circumstances.

Those circumstances would, obviously, include any discipline meted out to FBI officers determined to have violated policy or law.

The FBI Director would, also, have pointed to any steps in the process requiring procedural or legal improvement.

Whether or not the new FBI Director and the oversight committee found process or legal improvements were required:

  • there’d have been no need for disclosure of national security secrets
  • no loss of public confidence in the FBI and
  • no personal platform for either Devin Nunes (R) or Adam Schiff(D) individual political ambitions

Most importantly, the American people would be reassured that all the elected representatives and the government agencies were working effectively protect national security and individual privacy — simultaneously.

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