Slick and Inboden: U.S. must streamline intelligence processes

News | July 1, 2016

Steve Slick and Will Inboden’s recent op-ed for The Dallas Morning News based on their PRP class “Intelligence in American Society”.

 From The Dallas Morning News

Slick and Inboden: U.S. must streamline intelligence processes

Since the American Revolution, our leaders have recognized the need for accurate information about our enemies. George Washington was both the commander in chief and our first accomplished spymaster. He was supported by a Continental Congress that established secret committees to uncover British spies, recruit agents within the enemy’s ranks and covertly shape the policies of neutral states.

America had no permanent intelligence establishment until the dawn of the Cold War. A loose community of intelligence agencies operated largely in the shadows with minimal oversight until congressional investigators exposed troubling abuses in the 1970s. Since then, each new charge of incompetence or misconduct has produced another policy, structure or process to ensure our intelligence activities were legal, effective and aligned with American values.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s unlawful disclosures of surveillance programs, students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs launched a yearlong research project to evaluate the supervision and oversight of U.S. intelligence. Were the institutions charged with monitoring our sprawling intelligence community adequate to ensure these agencies respect our laws and values? Or, were the overseers’ intrusive demands frustrating essential operations?

After examining the history and interviewing almost 60 senior government officials, journalists and advocates, the students reported their findings and recommended changes. The U.S. system remains the model for democratic oversight of secret intelligence activities. No other government subjects its secret services to the same level of scrutiny that the U.S. does. Foreign calls for tighter control over U.S. intelligence are hypocritical and principally motivated by domestic politics.

The executive, legislative and judicial branches of government monitor intelligence activities daily. But, our oversight system was developed haphazardly and displays little coherence. A common observation was that no one would design from scratch a system that looks like this. We should streamline processes whenever possible. For example, the Intelligence Oversight Board should be disbanded because its legal monitoring role is now superfluous.

Congress is the principal constitutional check on U.S. intelligence. Lawmakers have ample authority and resources to regulate the intelligence community, but outdated committee jurisdictions and partisanship weaken legislative oversight. The declining institutional standing of Congress limits members’ ability to stand-in for the American public in approving risky intelligence operations. Congressional leaders should finally expand the jurisdiction of the permanent select committees in both houses to include intelligence appropriations.

New bodies such as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was created after 9/11 to ensure counterterrorism programs respect personal liberties, have exhibited autonomy, competence and discretion. The board can help reassure the public about the government’s actions, but it needs relief from anachronistic statutory restrictions.

The media prize their role as government watchdogs and routinely publish classified information leaked by public officials. Although this practice can serve a public purpose, it is equally likely to harm national security. Responsible media organizations should establish an external advisory panel of respected former security officials and journalists to help assess the likely security damage of disclosing secret information in specific cases.

Moral and ethical considerations are unavoidable in the conduct of intelligence. Pervasive secrecy in the intelligence community contributes to concerns about personal accountability. Intelligence professionals should develop standards for ethical conduct, and a system of peer enforcement, to increase the public’s confidence that individuals will be accountable for their actions.

The mere existence of laws and policies cannot ensure our intelligence agencies will act in accord with our democratic ideals. Greater trust is required. The intelligence community should seek to deepen public understanding of its mission and the democratic safeguards that already exist. A fledgling “Transparency Initiative” by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence could help, and it should be continued and institutionalized.

The U.S. needs capable, confident and resilient intelligence agencies to warn against threats and inform sound national security policies. We currently have a functioning system for regulating these important government activities, but it is suboptimal. Our system of intelligence oversight should be corrected before, and not after, the next time it fails to detect a shortcoming or abuse.

Stephen Slick is a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and leads the Intelligence Studies Project at The University of Texas at Austin. Email:

William Inboden is an associate professor at the LBJ School and the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security. Email: