Intelligence, United States Congressional Oversight of

Intelligence, United States Congressional Oversight of


Although the United States Congress served as facilitator to the establishment of the U.S. intelligence community by passing the National Security Act of 1947, during the next quarter-century it exerted little oversight in matters of intelligence. Then, in the 1970s, as distrust of the executive branch grew in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, Congress began to take a more activist stance. The result was the formation of the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House of Representatives, both precursors to permanent committees exerting legislative oversight for intelligence activities. From 1981 onward, presidents have been required to sign Intelligence Authorization Acts, annual requests for funds and authority to undertake broadly defined actions.

For the first quarter-century after it passed the National Security Act, which, among other things, created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Congress had little to say about the activities of the nascent intelligence community. Among significant legislation during this time were the 1949 revisions to the 1947 Act, whereby the structure of the National Security Council was altered; the State Department Basic Authorities Act of 1956; and the National Security Agency Act of 1959. The second of these acts provided rewards leading to the arrest of foreign saboteurs (it was amended to increase the rewards after the September, 2001, terrorist attacks), while the third act formalized aspects of the National Security Agency (NSA) created in a secret 1952 memorandum by President Harry S. Truman.

The new era of congressional oversight began in 1974, with the passage of the Hughes-Ryan Act amending the Foreign Service Act. Passed in the wake of covert activities that helped bring down the Marxist regime of Salvador Allende in Chile, the Hughes-Ryan Act required the President to submit plans for covert actions to the relevant congressional committees.

The mid-1970s also saw new legislation designed to protect private citizens from government snooping. Congress had passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1967, but strengthened it in 1975 with new provisions that gave U.S. citizens access to files on them kept by federal law-enforcement agencies. In the meantime, the Privacy Act of 1974 greatly restricted the authority of agencies to collect information on individuals, and to disclose that information to persons other than the individual.

The Church and Pike committees. In the meantime, the Church Committee (officially known as the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) had begun meeting in 1975. Its principal focus was domestic intelligence activities, but after interviewing NSA witnesses, it broadened its efforts. Chaired by Frank Church (D-ID), the committee revealed so much about U.S. covert operations that President Gerald R. Ford finally called Church and asked him, in the name of national security, to stop the release of sensitive information.

The Church Committee issued its final report on April 26, 1976, but its effect would extend over several decades. Less well known than the Church Committee was its House counterpart, the Pike Committee. Chaired by Otis Pike (D-NY), it also operated from 1975 to 1976, and likewise focused on the NSA. When Pike demanded a copy of the "charter" establishing NSA, he was rebuffed, as the so-called charter was actually Truman's secret memorandum. Although the committee subpoenaed the directive, the NSA, with help from the Justice Department and the Pentagon, successfully blocked them from seeing it. Aside from a very small portion (revealed only for the purpose of showing that NSA was exempt from certain legal restrictions on the use of communications intelligence), the NSA "charter" remains one of the most deeply buried secrets of the federal government.

Notwithstanding Church's and Pike's partisanship and desire to grandstand, their committees did introduce checks upon the perceived adventurism of the CIA, NSA, and other agencies. These efforts continued into the early 1980s. In 1980, Congress passed the Classified Information Act, which gives guidelines for the use of classified information by both government and defendant in a legal case. A year later, it introduced the Intelligence Authorization Act, whereby the President makes a yearly accounting of the intelligence community's current and planned operations.

Despite corrective measures that might have established a framework for positive interactions between executive and legislative branches where intelligence was concerned, the 1980s saw a deepening rift between the conservative Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan and the Democrat-dominated Congress. The situation reached its nadir with the Iran-Contra affair, in which the administration and the CIA went around Congress to fund anticommunist fighters in Nicaragua and free American hostages in the Middle East by selling arms to the regime in Iran. Although the Iran-Contra fallout did not result in significant new legislation reaffirming Congressional authority over intelligence activities, the lengthy hearings that followed served to reassert congressional authority.

Congressional oversight today. Today, numerous sections of the U.S. Code address intelligence activities, among them Title 5 (Government Organization and Employees), Title 10 (Armed Forces), Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal Procedure), Title 22 (Foreign Relations and Intercourse), and Title 50 (War and National Defense). An annual Intelligence Authorization Act reinforces congressional over-sight in the realm of intelligence, as do two standing committees that resulted from the Church and Pike hearings: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Congressional authority over intelligence is high, as reflective of a legislative republican democracy under the rule of law. Certainly it will never be high enough for those who subscribe to the conspiratorial view of U.S. intelligence activities; likewise it will always be too high for their counterparts at the other extreme. After the end of Iran-Contra, however, the relationship between Congress, the President, and the intelligence community has been, though far from collegial, usually less than adversarial.

The aftermath of the September, 2001, terrorist attacks, in fact, revealed that national leaders are capable of setting aside differences in the interests of the nation as a whole. In the heightened atmosphere of security that followed those attacks, a growing majority supported a freer rein on intelligence activities. Covert action, minimized as the result of the 1970s and 1980s scandals, would again be on the rise in the fight against terrorism.



Legislative Oversight of Intelligence Activities: The U.S. Experience: Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.

Roberts, Brad. U.S. Foreign Policy After the Cold War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Smist, Frank John. Congress Oversees the United States Intelligence Community, 1947–1994. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Wittkopf, Eugene R., and James M. McCormick. The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy: Insights and Evidence. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littefield Publishers, 1999.


Intelligence Laws and Regulations. Federation of American Scientists. < > (March 26, 2003).

Intelligence Oversight. < > (March 26, 2003).

Sturtevant, Mary. Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: One Perspective. Federation of American Scientists. < > (March 26, 2003).


Church Committee
CIA, Legal Restriction
Classified Information
Electronic Communication Intercepts, Legal Issues
FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
Intelligence Authorization Acts, United States Congress
Iran-Contra Affair
National Security Act (1947)
President of the United States (Executive Command and Control of Intelligence Agencies)
Privacy: Legal and Ethical Issues
Security Clearance Investigations
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, United States

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