Oversight of US Intelligence Activities
Given the number of critiques of intelligence performance that have been produced since the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Iraq, understanding how oversight of the US Intelligence Community is conducted can be confusing.
The White House has the primary responsibility within the executive branch for monitoring intelligence activities. This is done mainly through the National Security Council staff, although each president normally appoints members to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) and directs them to selectively investigate substantive and bureaucratic intelligence issues. And within each of the intelligence organizations are inspectors-general, who monitor activities, and general counsels, who ensure that activities are consistent with US laws.
Prior to the mid-1970s, congressional oversight of intelligence activities was quite informal and relaxed. Bipartisan support for the fight against communism during the early Cold War years meant that Congress did not pay much attention to the details of intelligence activities and pretty much provided requested funds in the battle against the Soviet Union and international communism. Successive DCIs informed Senate and House leadership of key activities, and defense subcommittees were briefed on budgets and programs, but not much other interaction took place.
This rather passive approach to oversight came to an abrupt halt in the 1970s with congressional concerns about the Vietnam War, the Watergate cover-up, and the exposure of a few illegal intelligence activities. On learning that assassination attempts against foreign leaders had been made during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Congress launched investigations into past intelligence activities. The good news is that despite some minor infractions of legal restrictions, the CIA and other parts of the IC were found to have been operating as directed by the White House—they were not “rogue elephants” conducting their own operations overseas and domestically.
With new congressional assertiveness that followed and a recognition by members of Congress that they had not been playing a responsible oversight role, both