Politics as Usual: Congress and the Intelligence Community
Intelligence is an integral part of states’ foreign policy formation and implementation. In the American context, the intelligence community is involved in essentially every national security discussion occurring in government, yet it remains relatively obscure to academia and the broader public. The inherently secretive nature of intelligence impedes the collection and analysis of reliable and representative data. Consequently, broad generalities and sensational accounts pervade public discussions and even academic research. We can have little confidence that we have a complete picture of how these clandestine organizations operate, their success as instruments of policy, or their effectiveness in warning.
Congress is nominally endowed with the primary responsibility for piercing this curtain of secrecy and ensuring the community’s primary goals are pursued efficiently and lawfully. Unfortunately, the secrecy that makes congressional oversight necessary also perversely disincentivize it. These efforts largely occur in private, taking members away from electorally beneficial activities. Inattentive voters, few interest groups, incomplete control of intelligence budgets, and no natural voting constituency exacerbate this problem. Despite these shortcomings, intelligence committee service has been highly coveted in recent years.
I argue that Congress members see other electoral benefits to intelligence committee service. At the institutional level, party and committee leadership see opportunities to search for failures or executive malfeasance in closed hearings and to bring salient issues to public attention in open sessions. At the individual level, committee members perceive that service bolsters foreign policy credentials and provides regular opportunities to take critical policy positions. Finally, while the public may be uninformed and inattentive on intelligence, they do pay attention to salient crises or alleged malfeasance, providing an electoral connection to the above partisan motivations.
I provide evidence of these incentives in a quantitative analysis of oversight hearing data, natural language processing of committee member communications on Twitter, and a national online survey with two survey experiments. I find that partisan political factors like divided government, election cycles, and party identity can influence patterns of committee and individual behavior, as well as the beliefs held by the public. In short, for intelligence oversight its politics as usual.
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