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.