Is more Congressional oversight good?

The bipartisan committee on terrorism has argued that Congress did not exercise sufficient oversight of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. For a pithy analysis read Daniel Drezner here and here.

More oversight will make the intelligence agencies, however they are structured, more risk-averse. The President or Congress will peep in every now and then, and the agencies will scurry to respond to the emergency of the day. They will work harder not to look bad. This is hardly the best way to encourage imaginative, long-run thinking in defense of our nation.

Excess risk-aversion already happened with Iraqi WMD. One CIA analyst noted: You have to understand,” he said. “We missed the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests last spring. We’re under a lot of pressure not to miss anything else.”

Now you might think that risk-aversion in intelligence is a good thing. Should we not take all possible care to protect America against foreign threats? But bureaucratic risk-aversion is not the same as a secure national defense. It brings groupthink, excess formalism, protecting against yesterday’s threat, and an unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes. Furthermore it can make effective pre-emption virtually impossible; decisionmakers and their allies will no longer trust their intelligence communities.

Rather than making intelligence agencies more accountable, how about making them more independent? Create some small, elite groups and staff them with the best people we can find. Pay them well. Give them arsm-length protection from political pressures. Treat them like the Federal Reserve, an independent agency renowned for the quality of its staff. Give them a culture of internal pride. Richard Clarke reminds us that: “It is no accident that the only intelligence agency that got it right on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department – a small, elite group of analysts encouraged to be independent thinkers rather than spies or policy makers.”

Sometimes the way to get what you want involves less control, not more control.