That means it’s more vital than it has ever been in our history that overseers stand ready to detect such abuse when it happens—and, just as importantly, to be believed when they expose it. That can hardly be taken for granted: Polls show that only 12 percent of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress; that figure is 72 percent for the military (of which the National Security Agency is technically a part) and 57 percent for law enforcement. Historically, leaders in Congress have sought to bolster the credibility of the intelligence committees by filling them with relative moderates, and insisting that their work be governed by a norm of nonpartisanship.
It will be hard for anyone who has read the Nunes memo to regard the committee’s output as nonpartisan now. And by crying wolf about intelligence abuses with no serious evidence, Nunes and his enablers have made it far easier for America’s spy agencies to dismiss any future allegations, however meritorious, as yet another self-serving partisan distraction: at best, baseless conspiracy theorizing; at worst, an effort to obstruct legitimate investigations.
But Nunes has not just dealt a blow to the committee’s credibility; it’s also likely he’s severely hampered its effectiveness.
In principle, the intelligence community is obligated to submit to robust oversight by Congress. In practice, it has always enjoyed enormous ability to gum up the process—slow walking the process of making classified material available and lading it with access restrictions when it is finally produced. A sufficiently determined committee can often pry the information it needs loose eventually, but such determination has often been lacking. As Stanford University’s Amy Zegart has documented, the intelligence committees appear much less productive than their counterparts, holding far fewer hearings and considering fewer legislative proposals.
Moreover, the committees are ultimately dependent on the intelligence community itself to direct their attention to areas that demand further scrutiny—whether in the form of official briefers, or whistleblowers who approach members with their concerns. Neither type is likely to repose much confidence in a committee that seems so enthusiastic to make a partisan circus of its grave task.
None of this to suggest that intelligence oversight is particularly robust as it stands: When the 9/11 Commission referred to congressional oversight of the intelligence community as “dysfunctional,” it was not reporting an outrageous new discovery, but only echoing the longstanding consensus of intelligence scholars.
Political scientists have offered a relatively simple explanation for this: Doing good intelligence oversight just doesn’t pay off. A legislator who spots and quietly resolves an intelligence problem typically doesn’t get to issue a press release about it, and a seat on an intelligence committee rarely provides an opportunity to direct juicy benefits to constituents back home. Thus, those committee appointments are rarely sought after, and legislators tend to rationally devote their time and scarce resources elsewhere, leaving intel committees perennially understaffed.
Nunes may finally have found a way to make chairing HPSCI yield real political dividends—but only by wrecking its credibility for the foreseeable future.