Watching the Senate Intelligence Committee’s world-threat hearing last week, it felt like the adults were finally back in town. Republicans and Democrats sat next to each other and spoke politely, in front of the cameras. They agreed that intelligence agencies are vital to America’s national security, not some deep state cabal bent on destroying the Trump administration.
Nobody used the word “hoax” or “shithole.” Senators from both parties asked sensible questions about serious threats—including North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s espionage activities, and Russia’s past, present, and future efforts to meddle in elections and undermine democracies around the world. Oh sure, there were screwball moments. This is Congress, after all. Senator Tom Cotton asked some “show of hands” questions to see if anyone would recommend that Americans use Chinese telecom products or services.
Those hoping for serious progress were also disappointed. Six intelligence agency leaders in the line of fire—including the directors of National Intelligence, FBI, CIA, and NSA—all expertly parsed, praised, and parried. Congressional hearings are always delicate dances. Witnesses have to satisfy their legislative overseers without alienating their executive-branch bosses or hurting their home agencies.
But still. It was a moment of adult supervision where questions were asked, answers were given, and facts were facts. These days, that’s a big deal. Over on the House side of Capitol Hill, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has managed to bring oversight to a dangerous new low. Weak oversight is bad, and we have lived with it for a long time. But Nunes is creating something much different and much worse: fake oversight.
For months now, Nunes—who served on the Trump transition team—has been behaving like a teenager who so desperately wants to be liked by the cool kid in the Oval Office, he’ll do anything and break everything. First there was his bizarre “midnight run” to the White House where he purportedly viewed classified documents, refused to share them with his own committee, and then held a solo press conference on the White House lawn to insinuate that the Obama administration may have improperly spied on the Trump transition team. “What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity—perhaps legal, but I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes told reporters. Nunes was temporarily forced to step down from his own committee’s Russia investigation after the House ethics committee launched an inquiry into whether he had revealed classified information. No proof of improper eavesdropping ever surfaced.
Then came his January memo—a cherry-picked document designed for one and only one purpose: to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election by casting doubt on the “legitimacy and legality” of the FBI’s application for a surveillance order on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The memo alleged that the FBI concealed the politically motivated origins of information it submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. The memo also alleged that the information in question—a dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who had been hired by a firm working on behalf of anti-Trump Republicans and then the Democratic National Committee—was the shaky and shady foundation for the Trump-Russia investigation. The implication: Biased Bureau officials had it out for Trump.
The Cool Kid loved it. “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” tweeted Trump. In reality, the president wasn’t vindicated at all. The memo itself acknowledged the FBI’s Russia investigation began with a different Trump adviser months before the Steele dossier came into play. And we now know that the FBI did disclose the political origins of the Steele dossier to the court in its request. But the Nunes memo had done its job, surrounding the truth in a swirl of doubt.
To be fair, congressional oversight has rarely won any gold medals. Until the 1970s, the congressional intelligence committees didn’t even exist. “Oversight” consisted of a handful of legislators who met a few times a year, informally and in secret. They did not ask questions and did not get answers. “It is not a question of reluctance on the part of the CIA officials to speak to us,” noted Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall in 1956. “Instead it is a question of our reluctance, if you will, to seek information and knowledge on subjects which I personally, as a member of Congress and as a citizen, would rather not have.”
Creating permanent House and Senate intelligence committees was an improvement. But that’s a pretty low bar. I’ve been collecting oversight data going back to 1985 and find that the intelligence committees have ranked among the least active committees in Congress—holding far fewer hearings and producing fewer pieces of legislation than their counterparts. The former 9/11 Commission chairs, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, called congressional oversight of intelligence “dysfunctional.” In 2007, intelligence oversight was still so bad, the Senate Intelligence Committee even held a hearing about itself—and asked me to testify about what it could do better. Today, the House Intelligence Committee still has term limits for its members, which means that just when representatives finally learn the acronyms of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies they oversee, they have to leave the committee.
As bad as no oversight and weak oversight are, there is no comparison to Nunes’s abuse of his authority to conduct fake oversight, which is toxic to the democratic process and dangerous to American national security. It consists of three components:
(1) An intent to deceive and confuse the American people rather than clarify and inform them;
(2) A refusal to allow meaningful dissent by others who have assessed the same information and reached different conclusions;
(3) The reckless weaponization of secrets—selectively declassifying information to advance a personal interest rather than the national interest.
Nunes’s four-page memo, compiled and written by Republican committee staff, claimed to distill information about what the FBI submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when it received authorization to surveil Page. Typically those submissions run 30 to 100 pages. It’s hard for any short document to do justice to the full record, and this short document didn’t much try. In a rare public break with the White House, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed “grave concerns” about “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy” and strongly recommended that the memo not be released.
The memo was released anyway. And when it came out that the FBI had told the court about the political origins of the dossier, Nunes admitted that, well, he had never actually read the FBI FISA court materials the memo purports to summarize. In other words, the committee chairman drew some damning conclusions about the nation’s chief law-enforcement agency without ever reviewing the facts. Which suggests he didn’t care much about the facts in the first place.
Real intelligence oversight requires including dissenting views in important documents to more fully air how different conclusions could be reached by different people reviewing the same information. This is more than a courtesy. It is vital for the search for ground truth, it is essential for maintaining a healthy debate in a democratic society, and it ensures a fuller account for history—helping us reinterpret key judgments as new information comes to light in the full course of time. Notably, every major oversight report since 9/11—the House and Senate Intelligence Committees’ 9/11 Joint Inquiry, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Iraq WMD report, and even the Senate Intelligence Committee’s controversial partisan report on CIA detention and interrogation programs—contained dissenting views. Nunes’s memo did not. It was passed by a party-line vote. Democrats wrote their own rebuttal memo, but Nunes and his Republican colleagues voted not to release it. Ranking Member Adam Schiff hasn’t given up, and he’s now locked in a battle with the White House about what will be released, and when. Meanwhile, the Nunes memo stands alone in the media spotlight—fake oversight making real news.
The chairman, finally, with no small help from the president, has weaponized secrets to a degree unprecedented in American history, putting narrow political interests over national interests. Nunes’s memo was released over the public and serious objections of the FBI. And yet the Democratic memo remains shrouded in secrecy for “national security” reasons. This, from a White House that has released code-word intelligence to the Russians about the Islamic State, kept a national-security adviser two weeks after being warned by the Justice Department that he could be a major counter-intelligence risk, and reviewed classified intelligence about a North Korean ballistic missile launch while dining al fresco at Mar-a-Lago, in full view of resort guests snapping photos.
Congressional intelligence oversight has always been weak. It has never been fake. Until now.