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Kibbe Examines Congressional Oversight of Intelligence
Jennifer Kibbe, associate professor of government
The looks on the faces of Jennifer Kibbe’s students say it all. After reading about America’s efforts to reform its intelligence community in the years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, they arrive in class to discuss the efficiency of the new system. Nearly a decade after the most shocking failure of intelligence in the country’s history, the students know that serious problems remain.
“Students come to class and say it’s depressing,” says Kibbe, associate professor of government. “It’s so dysfunctional. The single biggest flaw identified by the 9/11 Commission was the lack of cooperation between agencies, but there are still so many turf battles.”
The nation’s sprawling intelligence community has been the focus of much of Kibbe’s work in recent years. Her paper, “Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: Is the Solution Part of the Problem?” was recently mentioned in a Newsweek article examining the shortfalls of America’s secret intelligence. Part of the problem, Kibbe says, is the sheer number of cogs in the system. With intelligence operations spread across 16 different agencies, “reforming intelligence is nowhere as simple as it sounds,” she says.
Kibbe’s interest in Congressional oversight of intelligence began in the fall of 2002, when she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Soon after the one-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, she read about the growing influence of the military in the nation’s intelligence community.
“There were indications that Donald Rumsfeld [then secretary of defense] was beefing up military intelligence and covert operations,” Kibbe says. “He was trying to push the CIA out of the way. To me, the biggest ramification is that when the CIA engages in these operations, everyone agrees there is oversight by law. But the military thinks there is no oversight when it conducts covert action.”
Kibbe is interested in the military’s special operations forces, which track down terrorists around the world. “By naming the fight with al Qaeda the ‘Global War on Terrorism,’ the Bush administration implicitly defined the battlefield as the entire world,” Kibbe says. “So special operations forces are going all over the globe killing alleged terrorists. But they don’t have to provide their evidence to anyone. There is zero oversight.”
Congressional oversight of intelligence in general is weak for a variety of reasons, Kibbe says. The intelligence committees in Congress have an inherent informational disadvantage in relation to the executive branch; the committees operate in a jurisdictional quagmire; and they are characterized by increasing partisanship. Kibbe notes that the partisanship seemed to begin in earnest with the nomination hearings for Robert Gates—now the secretary of defense—to be director of central intelligence in 1991.
“Since then, it’s been in a downward cycle of partisanship,” she says. “To increase oversight, I think you need very strong, nonpartisan people leading the intelligence committees in Congress.”
In an effort to reform intelligence based on the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report, the U.S. introduced the National Counterterrorism Center to serve as the primary organization for integrating and analyzing all intelligence pertaining to counterterrorism. The reform also included a new position, the national director of intelligence (NDI).
“The problem is that the NDI is hamstrung by the secretary of defense, because he controls 85 percent of the intelligence budget,” Kibbe says. “The NDI needs the ability to hire and fire [personnel] and control the budget, but Rumsfeld said, ‘No way.’ That’s why the NDI hasn’t functioned as planned. In some ways, it’s the worst job in Washington—all of the responsibility without authority.”
Through all the reform and bureaucratic wrangling, Kibbe says that al Qaeda remains a threat to America, even though the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks looks different today from how it looked nine years ago.
“Al Qaeda has proven to be more adaptive to different situations than anyone imagined,” Kibbe says. “The U.S. squashed the initial central operation in Afghanistan, but it’s now more horizontal and far-flung. We’ve done a good job, eliminating lots of middle and some high-level members of al Qaeda. But I worry about its far-flung nature.”