The Watchdogs aren't watching
Several years ago, at a secret House Intelligence Committee hearing, officials from the National Reconnaissance Office briefed members of Congress about a classified NRO program. Ten minutes into the presentation, one confused congressman interrupted: "Does this have anything to do with satellites?"
Congress established the House and Senate intelligence committees to make sure the NRO, the CIA, and other spy agencies operate within the law, spend their billions the way lawmakers intended, and deliver the hardware the nation requires. Too often, though, panel members aren't up to the job, many critics say. "So often today, Congress has trouble doing its job regarding oversight," says Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic representative from Indiana who served on the House Intelligence Committee.
The 17 senators and 22 representatives on the two panels are hamstrung as they scrutinize the sprawling, secretive intelligence community. They are short on staff and don't control the funding for the agencies they oversee. The estimated $35 billion spent on intelligence each year comes from the Pentagon's budget and is under the jurisdiction of the armed services and appropriations committees. "They don't have a hammer to hammer anyone with," says a former House Intelligence Committee staffer. There are other problems: Committee members are often enamored of spooks and satellites and fail to ask hard questions, say former committee aides. And the issues discussed are highly technical and arcane.
The failure of these watchdogs has cost taxpayers and contributed to foul-ups in satellite programs. In 1994, some in Congress charged that NRO officials failed to keep them apprised of the costs of a new $310 million headquarters building. But members of the House Intelligence Committee admitted that the NRO had kept them informed; they had failed to review the information. Dennis DeConcini, then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, acknowledged at the time that his committee "should have asked more questions." He concluded: "No excuses. We will do a better job in the future."
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and the current panel chairman, maintains that his staff is "well equipped" to oversee the troubled NRO. However, not everyone agrees. Some intelligence committee staffers admit that they allowed the NRO's Future Imagery Architecture program--a next-generation satellite system that is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule--to spiral out of control. "We should have done a better job of oversight," says one staffer. -Douglas Pasternak
This story appears in the August 11, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.