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On December 10th, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security hosted a discussion entitled “Spywatchers: Governing Intelligence in an Imperfect World.” Michael Morell, former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the CIA led as moderator. He was joined by panelists George Little, Lisa Monaco, John Rizzo, and Mark Zaid.
The panelists gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to discuss the role of legal oversight in American intelligence. Morell, a 33-year CIA veteran, explained the importance of oversight in achieving three goals: ensuring intelligence stays within the bounds of the law, showing the American public that the intelligence community is protecting the country effectively, and demonstrating that it is doing its job efficiently. Given the secretive nature of intelligence, these goals can be challenging. Panelist John Rizzo illustrated such challenges by tracing the history of intelligence oversight.
John Rizzo joined the CIA in 1976 as one of the first lawyers hired by the agency following the Church Committee investigations. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, segments of intelligence overstepped their bounds, leading to the Church Committee investigations. Following changes made by the Committee, lawyers like Rizzo were brought on board to oversee the legality of future actions while providing protection for the agency in its endeavors. The Church Committee, he explained, established the current oversight apparatus and led to the close relationship between the intelligence community and its internal “spywatchers.”
Oversight comes in two components, said Lisa Monaco, former Assistant to President Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and senior official in the Department of Justice’s national security branch. First, oversight ensures that intelligence activities are lawful. Second, it safeguards ethics and policy directives. Are the intelligence agencies collecting properly? Is the collection focus in line with current administration goals? Oversight can help answer these questions and calibrate the focus of intelligence collection.
How can agencies address the challenge of demonstrating the legality of their operations to the public? George Little, who once served as CIA’s Director of Public Affairs, discussed how the CIA’s interaction with the public looks much different now than it did in decades past. He spoke of the need for the agency to balance what General Hayden has called “twin imperatives” – openness and secrecy. While historically the agency remained shrouded in secrecy, it has since become more open while still protecting vital sources and methods. More interaction with the press and public has provided the agency greater accountability. Through a cordial relationship with reporters, intelligence officials can set the facts straight and clarify what remains too sensitive to publish.
Mark Zaid, a lawyer specializing in the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act, regularly represents individuals who have grievances with the intelligence community. He agreed that public outreach gives intelligence agencies an opportunity to speak for themselves. He noted that when classified information is leaked, the intelligence community can use its public relations channels to mitigate risk or set the record straight.
Oversight in its many forms aligns the interests of the intelligence community with policy and helps uphold the country’s legal standards and structures. The give-and-take between policy, law, and intelligence – while challenging at times – is fundamental to the processes of a democracy and vital to the American way.
Tyler Cross is an International Security master’s student at the Schar School of Policy and Government.