Eyes on Spies

by Kenneth Anderson

Over the weekend, I read Amy B. Zegart’s new short book, Eyes on Spies, which deals with the persistent failures of Congress to engage in effective intelligence oversight.  (The book is in a Hoover Institution Press series that features short books — brisk and brief, readable in a single plane flight — focused on a single topic.)  I think the book is excellent and here is my review. A short bit:

A leading political scientist with a distinguished track record in intelligence studies, Zegart is a national security scholar at Stanford and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution.   This is political science, not law.  Students seeking an outline of the law, formal and informal legal mechanisms of intelligence oversight, will have to go elsewhere. Current issues running to the substance of what is taken up by Congress are not taken up at all. What this book does convey is discouraging news for those wanting to see Congress as the natural seat of accountability in intelligence. From the vantage point of social science, Zegart explains how Congress does a poor job of oversight of intelligence issues and lays out the many daunting institutional reasons why this is so.

Her methods are rational choice and public choice theory, on the one hand, and impressive empirical studies of how Congress actually behaves, on the other—studies that are sufficient to show what the theory of incentives would predict. Zegart starts with a review of the literature on congressional oversight in general; she discusses two basic theories of oversight, the “police patrol” and the “fire alarm.” The policing model says that for certain functions, Congress is constantly patrolling executive activities, whereas for others, Congress outsources informally to other actors (including lobbyists) and then intervenes when the fire alarm occasionally goes off. Either way, a substantial part of the oversight literature suggests that congressional oversight, either in the way it designs agencies or undertakes oversight, hits the “Goldilocks” mean of not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Whether that sanguine conclusion about the efficiency of congressional oversight is generally true or not, Zegart says flatly that it is not true of intelligence oversight by Congress. On the contrary, at least as measured by congressional activity–such as holding hearings or allocating staff resources–intelligence oversight is paltry by comparison to other areas of oversight, such as banking and finance, armed services, and many others. Indeed, Zegart’s research shows that intelligence oversight is nearly at the bottom of the heap in terms of resources and attention, hearings and bills, by comparison to almost any other activity. (Ethics does still worse.) This is as true of the past ten years as it has been of the preceding decades. Despite the undeniable importance and growing reach of intelligence activities, and the steep growth of the intelligence budget and community, intelligence oversight remains practically as moribund as ever.

http://opiniojuris.org/2011/10/17/eyes-on-spies/

One Response

  1. “deals with the persistent failures of Congress to engage in effective intelligence oversight.”

    “Persistent” anything isn’t a “failure” from the point of view of the “persister”… it is a success. In the long run those who manage [run/control/direct] institutions get pretty much what they want. This isn’t a 60 year record of happenstances and coincidences.

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