There are no written rules, agreed to by both branches, governing what intelligence will be shared with the Hill or how it will be handled. The current system is entirely the product of experience, shaped by the needs and concerns of both branches over the last 20 years. While some aspects of current practice appear to have achieved the status of mutually accepted "policy," few represent hard-and-fast rules. "Policy" will give way when it has to.
All Members of Congress have access to intelligence by virtue of their elected positions. They do not receive security clearances per se.
Congressional staffers who require access to intelligence in connection with their official duties receive security clearances based on background investigations conducted by the FBI. They are not required to take polygraphs. As a general rule, only committee staffers receive clearances; those in Members' personal offices do not.
Classified intelligence reports(1) are routinely provided only to the committees that have responsibilities in the national security area.(2) Members of these committees receive preference from the Intelligence Community in satisfying their requests on an individual basis. Among the national security committees, the intelligence committees and their Members are accorded preferential treatment, as discussed below.
The leadership in each chamber--the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate and the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives--are ex officio members of their respective intelligence committees and have access to intelligence held by the committees. Typically, a member of each leader's staff serves as liaison to the intelligence committee, keeping up with the committee's activities and serving as a conduit for information to his or her boss. Each of these Congressional leaders also has staff responsible for national security issues who can make independent requests to the Intelligence Community for support--which may include briefings and/or written analysis. While Congressional leaders rarely have time to get involved in intelligence matters themselves, there are exceptions. Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, has made a point of scheduling regular meetings with the DCI to cover substantive as well as operational matters.
Committees that do not have national security responsibilities and individual Members who do not serve on national security committees may request intelligence support but are typically given a lower priority. Intelligence agencies do, nevertheless, try to accommodate them in some fashion, usually by providing briefings. On occasion, typically in connection with a vote in either House on a national security issue, the Intelligence Community will be asked to provide briefings that are open to the entire body. These are ordinarily arranged at the request of the leadership in either House and are held in a secure briefing room on the fourth floor of the Capitol.
The two intelligence committees are the repositories of most intelligence shared with Congress. Their offices and hearing rooms are physically located in "vaulted" areas that meet the DCI's standards for storage and discussion of information relating to intelligence sources and methods. They are guarded around the clock by the Capitol Hill police. Visitors must be cleared into these areas and escorted while inside.
The other "national security" committees, by contrast, have offices that are not secure and that are open to the public. In the Senate the Office of Security serves as the storage repository for SCI material made available to the SASC, SFRC, and SAC. In the House individual committees (the HNSC, HIRC, and HAC) have small repositories for storing SCI material. Typically, the senior staff of these committees, and/or staffers with responsibility for issues to which intelligence may relate, are cleared for intelligence information.
The 104th Congress saw a marked increase in interactions with these committees, especially with the HNSC, HIRC, SASC, and SFRC.(3) Some of the people interviewed attributed this increase to the fact that the new Republican majorities on these committees were anxious to find a source of information with which to challenge the incumbent Democratic administration. Others pointed to the fact that certain staffers on these committees had served in previous Republican administrations and were more attuned to what they could obtain from intelligence agencies. In any event, while the intelligence committees continue to receive the lion's share of intelligence provided to Congress, the trend over the last two years has been toward expansion of the amount going to the "national security" committees other than the intelligence committees.
Access to Finished Intelligence
The intelligence committees today receive hard copies of most finished intelligence published by the Intelligence Community for general circulation. What is given to one chamber's intelligence committee is given to the other.
When new publications are created or new analytic "art forms" are developed for general circulation, they usually are made available sooner or later to the intelligence committees, either because someone on one of the committees hears of them or because someone in an intelligence agency realizes that the intelligence committees should be included on the distribution list. There is no systematic process, however, for deciding which publications should and which should not go to the two intelligence committees.
Intelligence agencies also make no effort to screen the publications provided for content; if the publications are on the list to go to the committees, they go. At present, these publications include current intelligence, notably the National Intelligence Daily (NID) and DIA's Military Intelligence Digest (MID), as well as estimative intelligence, including all NIEs. In 1995 approximately 5,000 such publications were delivered to each of the intelligence committees.
In addition, both intelligence committees in 1996 installed computer terminals linking them to an Intelligence Community network (PolicyNet) that provides electronic access to most finished intelligence and, in some cases, to intelligence reports that are not provided in hard copy--for example, certain analysis done by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department. Daily digests of NSA SIGINT reporting--"single-source reports," referred to as "product" by NSA--also are available via PolicyNet. The committees expect to link up in the near future to another Intelligence Community computer network that will provide electronic access to an even broader range of reporting.
By contrast, the other "national security" committees receive copies of the NID and the MID but must request copies of other finished intelligence (including NIEs) from lists that are regularly provided by the principal production agencies (CIA and DIA). These lists are keyed to the particular jurisdiction and level of clearance of each committee. At this juncture, none of these committees has electronic access to intelligence reporting.
Committees with responsibilities outside the national security area do not receive intelligence publications at all, nor are they given lists of such publications from which to choose. If such committees request intelligence support, it is ordinarily provided to them through briefings rather than in the form of classified documents.
Use of finished intelligence provided to the Hill--either in hard copy or by electronic means--appears limited. Although the NID and MID are read regularly by staff of the national security committees, Members rarely take the time to do so. If they are informed at all, it usually occurs when staffers brief them or show them items of interest.
Most of the finished intelligence furnished to the two oversight committees is, in fact, read by no one, and only occasionally does that which is read prompt a followup. Staffers of the oversight committees will, at the direction of Members or on their own initiative, follow the intelligence reporting on topics known to be of interest to Members. When Members have questions or crises occur, the availability of the previous reporting also gives the staff a means to quickly check the Community's performance. Staffers sometimes also consult previous reporting to prepare a Member for a foreign trip or a meeting with a foreign dignitary. Generally speaking, though, Members and staff say they are too busy to read the voluminous number of intelligence reports that come in each day. As one staffer conceded, "I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to my Member that it is worth his time to come in here and read this stuff. Frankly, it is not even worth my time."
Staffers of the other national security committees also concede that they may or may not read the intelligence publications they request, depending upon circumstances at the time the requested publication arrives.
Finished intelligence that is not published for general circulation is not routinely shared with Congress. For example, the Hill does not receive copies of the President's Daily Brief (PDB), prepared daily by CIA. Nor does it receive copies of the daily intelligence summaries prepared for the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Moreover, it does not receive "memo dissems" prepared by CIA for use by White House principals on various topics or tailored materials requested by top-level officials during their daily briefings. Occasionally, as part of an oversight investigation, intelligence committee staffers are shown portions of such tailored reporting--including the PDB--but regular access has not been accorded.
Intelligence officials distinguish this type of publication--tailored to the needs of the President and other high-level officials--from other finished intelligence that has a more general circulation. Tailored analysis is keyed to the needs and interests of the officials concerned: their contacts with foreign counterparts, the reactions of those counterparts to what the US officials have said, events on their schedules, and particular interests they have voiced. This analysis is so tied to the functioning of the executive branch, said one official, that distribution to Congress would be "inappropriate."
The Members and staff interviewed for this study generally acquiesced in this arrangement. Most believed that Congressional needs were satisfied by access to finished intelligence intended for general circulation, particularly the NID, and that access to intelligence reporting tailored for high-level officials in the executive branch would not substantially improve their knowledge base. While access to this analysis might satisfy their curiosity, they did not see it as worth the "pitched battle" that pressing for routine access would inevitably trigger.
Congress also does not routinely see "raw" intelligence--unevaluated intelligence reporting, usually from a single source. The intelligence committees, however, occasionally receive "nonstandard" distributions of single-source intelligence on matters in which they have expressed a particular interest, such as satellite imagery of suspected mass grave sites in Bosnia. They also are occasionally granted access to "raw" intelligence for purposes of carrying out an oversight investigation.
Intelligence officials note that, as a practical matter, the volume of "raw" intelligence is such that the intelligence committees would be incapable of storing it. They also justify the current policy on security grounds--the need to avoid jeopardizing sensitive source information--as well as on the grounds that it would be "dangerous" to give Congress unevaluated, single-source reporting that has not been placed in context by analysts who have "all-source" access. As one official noted, "It's bad enough that policymakers get this stuff and run with it. Can you imagine what would happen if we gave it to Congress?"
Intelligence committee staffers, for their part, acknowledge the impracticality of receiving all of the raw intelligence produced by the Intelligence Community. Some chafe, however, at the suggestion that "raw intelligence" should, as a matter of principle, not be available to them because of security concerns or their inability to evaluate its significance, noting that such reporting is widely available to consumers in the executive branch.
Some of those interviewed believe Congress receives a skewed impression of the performance of the Intelligence Community because it sees only finished intelligence intended for general circulation. As one Congressional staffer noted: "What we see up here is the reporting that deals with macro issues, that tries to predict outcomes, etc. The real strength of the Intelligence Community is in producing tactical information--hard information that people can act on. Very little of this kind of information gets into the NID, and consumers who only read the NID really have very little appreciation for what the Intelligence Community is actually doing."
A former Congressional staffer was perhaps more realistic: "It's really irrelevant what kind of published intelligence is sent to the Hill. Nobody has time to read it anyway."
Access to Intelligence Through Briefings
What intelligence is assimilated by Congress comes principally through briefings, which are provided by one intelligence agency or another virtually every day when Congress is in session. What intelligence is assimilated by Congress comes principally through briefings, which are provided by one intelligence agency or another virtually every day when Congress is in session. These may occur in formal settings--open or closed hearings--or in informal settings where no records of the proceedings are maintained. Briefings may be presented to committees, individual Members, committee staffs, or individual staff members, as the situation requires. While most briefings are performed at the request of Members or staff, intelligence agencies also provide briefings on their own initiative when they have information they believe should be shared with the Hill. The agencies especially feel such an obligation toward the intelligence committees, but increasingly they also have a sense of commitment to other committees that have explicitly asked to be kept informed of developments in particular areas.
Intelligence briefings are requested for various purposes. Committees want to stay apprised of developments in their areas of responsibility. Often Members simply want to understand developments abroad in order to be able to comment knowledgeably about them. Not infrequently, such requests are prompted by events reported in the press or seen on CNN. Briefings are also requested to help Members decide how to vote on particular issues or to provide background to Members crafting legislative initiatives in the foreign policy area. Individual Members, moreover, may request intelligence briefings in preparation for foreign trips or for meetings with foreign officials. CIA records reflect 39 briefings of this nature in 1995.(4)
Intelligence agencies attempt to accommodate all requests for briefings they receive from Congress, but they give priority to the leadership in both Houses and to the intelligence committees and their Members. Next in priority come the other national security committees and their Members and then, finally, the rest of Congress. A list of the substantive briefings given by CIA in 1995 suggests that Congress concerns itself principally with foreign policy issues on the "front burner" of public concern. Some 71 briefings, for example, were provided on Bosnia, 40 on Iran, 35 on Haiti, 33 on weapons proliferation, 29 on Iraq, and 27 on North Korea.(5)
Briefings to the intelligence committees are likely to contain more information about the sources and methods involved in reaching the analytical conclusions presented than briefings to other committees. Briefings to other than the intelligence committees are more apt to include facts and analytical conclusions with little, if any, information regarding how the underlying evidence was gathered.
Occasionally, even in the intelligence committees, an analytical judgment or conclusion will be based on very sensitive information that analysts feel uncomfortable imparting to a large audience. Agencies typically deal with such situations by briefing the chairman and the ranking minority member separately, or perhaps the majority and minority staff directors acting in their stead. When the full committee is subsequently briefed, the analyst usually states that certain extremely sensitive information has been conveyed separately to the chairman and the ranking minority member.
Whether sensitive information is conveyed beyond the intelligence committees--either to committees with overlapping jurisdiction or to the leadership--depends on circumstances. Both intelligence committees operate under resolutions that require them to adopt procedures governing access by other committees or Members to intelligence received by the committee.(6) The Senate committee opted to implement this provision by resting authority in the chairman and vice chairman (the title used by the SSCI's ranking minority member) to make this determination. The House committee chose to require a formal vote of the entire committee before intelligence could be conveyed to other committees or Members.
This difference in the rules of the two intelligence committees has led to somewhat differing roles vis-a-vis their respective institutions. The SSCI considers that it has an obligation to keep the Senate leadership and other committees with overlapping jurisdiction aware of significant intelligence that is relevant to their responsibilities. It will brief (or have intelligence agencies brief) the leaders of the Senate and/or other committees in appropriate circumstances, or invite them to attend briefings given to the intelligence committee or its staff. There are no criteria governing this practice. It is done to the extent the leaders of the SSCI believe it should be done.
The HPSCI, in contrast, does not routinely brief other House committees on sensitive information provided to the committee, nor does it invite members or staff of other committees to briefings of the committee. The HPSCI does make sure that the House leaders--who are ex officiomembers--are appropriately informed on intelligence matters. On occasion, it also advises briefers that other committees need to hear a particular briefing, but in practice, it makes little if any effort to ensure that this actually happens.
More than 30 Congressional committees have electronic access to an unclassified computer service, FBIS Online, operated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service of the CIA, which provides access to foreign media and other information derived from publicly available sources.
(2) These include the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Appropriations Committee, the House International Relations Committee, the House National Security Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
(3) From statistics compiled by CIA's Office of Congressional Affairs.
(5) Statistics supplied by the Office of Congressional Affairs, CIA.
(6) Each intelligence committee is required to maintain records of all disclosures of intelligence information to any Member who is not assigned to the committee. Members who receive such information are prohibited from disclosing it to anyone except in a closed session of their respective House. Members who violate this prohibition must be referred by the intelligence committee concerned to the ethics committee for investigation and disposition.