Why Congress and the CIA Clash, and Why That Hurts National Security

Each side has its reasons, and its faults, that result in a relationship that hurts national security.

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Margaret Henoch retired in March after 22 years of service as a senior CIA official.

The recent dispute over intelligence briefings—with members of Congress complaining that they were insufficiently informed of reported plans by the Central Intelligence Agency to kill al Qaeda leaders—highlights the dysfunction haunting the CIA and Congress.

There are several sources for the tension plaguing the relationship. First, it is colored by American ambivalence toward intelligence. Historically, our geographic isolation and freedom from invasion protected the country, and we had limited need for the kind of information that intelligence should provide. That limited need resulted in a limited understanding of the profession. We love the intelligence game as played by 24's Jack Bauer or James Bond, but when we see it in all its real-life messiness, our Puritan sensibilities, derived from the Founding Fathers' concern over European-style court intrigue, make us squirm.

Against this background, congressional support for the CIA has waxed and waned and has at best been ambiguous. The requirement to brief is vague. Legally, the CIA has to ensure that Congress is kept fully and currently informed of intelligence activities as well as significant anticipated activity. The requirement does not, however, specify the meaning of "fully," "currently," or "anticipated." This latitude obliges the CIA to make decisions based on what Congress may think two, four, or 10 years in the future, rather than on solid reasoning.

And unlike other elements of national security, there is no constituency in Congress for the CIA. The enormously expensive F-22 fighter plane, for example, which has not been used in either of our two current wars and is not backed by either President Obama or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, retained congressional support for years because it was economically important in several House districts. The CIA is small, is concentrated in the Washington area, is not economically important, and is too controversial. As a result, it can count on no such constituency.

There is debate over whether members of Congress or their staff leak classified information. I suspect the answer is not as clear as the public would like. However, members use the CIA to score domestic political points in ways that are frustrating to intelligence professionals. Few members of Congress were career intelligence officers. And most of their staffers have little direct experience with the real substance of human intelligence. Many of those who do have intelligence backgrounds worked in necessary but tangential areas of the agency or left the profession with less success than they might have hoped and harbor deep grudges they seek to redress. Congress could significantly improve its assessment of intelligence questions and its relationship with the agency if it hired officers with solid backgrounds and records of having been right.

The CIA, on the other hand, too frequently promotes officers based not on how often they were correct but on other, easily visible factors. Being collegial is more valued than being right. Officers who have served in multiple posts are considered more experienced, regardless of what they accomplished there. Those who brief senior administration officials are likely to get ahead faster than those who work on complicated analytic assessments. Rapid feedback that they were right is rare for CIA officers, just because of the nature of the intelligence product. A promotion system that more often rewards correct answers would benefit the CIA enormously.

Instead, there is little accountability at the agency. Officers with long, known records of bad judgments are too rarely disciplined and too frequently promoted to big jobs. At the same time, a highly qualified, well-respected officer will be "allowed to resign" after shoddy security investigations based on inaccurate assumptions indicate a possible problem.

The CIA does not, despite years of "innovative" programs, sufficiently train its officers to do jobs that are tangential to the basic operational and analytic positions. Briefing Congress, for example. Without systematic training, officers working in liaison with Congress often "manage" staffs and Congress, which is obvious and annoying to them. Better training would certainly improve communication between the agency and the legislators.