Opening Statement of
Lee Hamilton
Woodrow Wilson Center

Hearing before the
Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management
and Intergovernmental Relations
House Committee on Government Reform

July 18, 2001

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Shays, Mr. Gilman. It's a pleasure to be with you. I always thought it was a little easier to sit up there and ask the questions than it is to sit down here and answer them, and I'm quite confident of that this morning. But I'm very pleased to be with you.

Let me make a few opening comments about the way I approach the question that the chairman has raised, and Mr. Gilman and Mr. Shays. First of all, I think we all agree that good intelligence is essential for the security of the country. United States policy has to be based on the most accurate information available and on correct prediction insofar as that is possible. Good intelligence does not guarantee good policy, but bad or poor intelligence almost certainly guarantees bad policy. A nation without intelligence is like a person without eyes and ears. Good intelligence is essential.

Secondly, the tasks that we assign to the intelligence community today are simply overwhelming -- enormous, varied, expanding. The old proverb says that only a fool would make a prediction, especially about the future. But the problem, of course, is that we ask the CIA to make not just one but hundreds of predictions every week, and we want them to be as accurate as possible. And the toughest thing in the world to predict is intentions, and we ask the CIA to predict that all of the time.

I believe that our intelligence capabilities are very good; always room for improvement. I believe that the people who work at our intelligence agencies are highly talented and dedicated people. Jim Woolsey was an outstanding director of the CIA, but he represents many hundreds, thousands of others who do marvelous work for the country.

I support greater openness on the part of the intelligence community. I think the intelligence community should be forthcoming in making available information on its work and the role that it plays in shaping U.S. policy. Let me just say a word about the importance of oversight by the Congress of the intelligence community. My view, I gather your view, is that the intelligence community needs very strong, very vigorous, independent oversight. And the Congress is the only body that can really give, under our current laws and structure and practices, independent oversight of the executive branch.

This intelligence community is enormously large, it's very complicated, and it is hugely expensive. In this town, information is power, and the intelligence community has tremendous power to influence policy. Intelligence is an area of great temptation for a president. Presidents can be tempted, I should say, to manipulate intelligence to influence the policy debate.

I think oftentimes the executive sees intelligence as a tool to make policy look good rather than a tool for making good policy. Presidents often resort to the intelligence information they have, (to?) CIA for covert actions when they're frustrated by obstacles to their policies. So Congress, in a sense, stands between the president and the misuse of intelligence by the intelligence community and by the executive branch.

The congressional role in oversight -- I'll get now to that more specifically -- is limited but extremely important for some of the reasons I've suggested. Unlike other federal agencies, federal agencies, the intelligence community does not receive the kind of close scrutiny, independent of the president, that almost every other policy does.

There's very little media coverage of the intelligence community. There are very few academic studies of the intelligence community. There are no, or at least not a large number, of lobbying groups for the intelligence community. Most of the meetings they have occur in secret, without the public input, and isolated from most members of Congress. There is an inspector general of the CIA. There is a Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Those are appointed by the president, not independent of the president.

And intelligence is a very arcane business. So I think oversight is very important. If the Congress fails to identify the problems in intelligence, they may go unspotted. And while they have been a very good agency in many respects, the CIA, over a period of years, has also been a very troubled agency. At one point not long ago, I think they had five directors in seven years. You can't possibly manage that shop over there with five directors in seven years. It's just too big and too complicated. The intelligence community has not, I can assure you, come easily to the idea of congressional oversight, but I believe they have come to that. And that's an important fact.

Now, as I understand the law today, it's quite extraordinary, really, that you have this massive intelligence community, and yet you do not have any fundamental charter or law. We've tried to draft a charter for the intelligence community several times and never succeeded. But there are a number of pieces of legislation. There are a lot of rules and practices that have been put into place over the period of the last few decades that set the framework, if you would, for oversight of the intelligence community.

The law provides that the executive keep the House and Senate Intelligence Committees fully and currently informed of intelligence activities, and that judgment as to whether it's fully informed or currently informed is a judgment the Congress has to make, not the intelligence community. The law provides that illegal and failed activity be reported in a timely way. And, of course, it has a special provision with regard to covert actions.

It's an extremely difficult problem of oversight, because the intelligence committees are given legislative, investigative and authorization authority over the intelligence community. They have exclusive jurisdiction of the CIA, but they share jurisdiction with other agencies; for example, the Department of Defense, NSA, DIA, State, Energy. So it's a very complex pattern that you have of oversight of the intelligence community.

There are a lot of benefits from oversight. I don't think I need to go into that because I know very well the chairman's position on that. The Congress conducts that oversight, of course, through the budget process. I think the great task is to strike a balance between the need to ensure accountability and the intelligence community's need to gather and protect information. It's the balance between oversight and secrecy. It is not an easy task. You will never get it right completely. But you have to keep working at it. And sometimes the Congress is a partner of the intelligence community, sometimes it's a critic; sometimes it's an advocate for the intelligence community, sometimes it's a watchdog. And those roles are very hard to keep in balance.

My view, and I'll conclude with this, Mr. Chairman, is that the Congress has to get the information it needs from the intelligence community. Congress should be the judge of that -- have in place today a structure that has been developed over a period of decades really where the information from the CIA is provided to the intelligence committees. Then the intelligence committees must decide how that information is made available to other members of the Congress. This system doesn't work perfectly. But my judgment is it works reasonably well. And I do feel it is possible there may be a better way to do it. But we ought not to go to another way in an ad hoc manner by this subcommittee or that subcommittee, or this committee or that committee demanding information from the CIA.

If you really want to change the way you do oversight of the intelligence community, then it has to be approached, it seems to me, in a very coherent, comprehensive way, to change the structure that is put in place over the past few decades -- a structure of law, a structure of precedent, a structure of practice. And the question of sharing intelligence information outside of the intelligence committees to other members is always a very sensitive question in this institution, and one that has created tensions as long as I can recall.

So the bottom line is that I think the system that we have certainly calls out for improvement. It's working reasonably well. But be careful not to throw it out, unless you have something to put in its place that has been carefully, comprehensively, coherently thought about.