Amid the controversy concerning the declassification of the memo prepared by the majority staff of the House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence, the so-called Nunes memo, there is another story involving national security and international cooperation that has not received the public attention it deserves.
The politicization of congressional oversight risks undermining public confidence in the U.S. intelligence community, but there is another danger, largely overlooked but just as grave — the impact on the intelligence community’s relations with other states.
Most Republicans in Congress, with a few exceptions, such as Sen. John McCain, have supported President Donald Trump’s decision to declassify the memo over the objection of FBI Director Christopher Wray, who Trump appointed after firing of former Director James Comey. Critics of the Nunes memo and the decision to declassify it have focused on corruption of Congress’ oversight of the intelligence community.
As part of reforms adopted in the 1970s, the Senate and House established intelligence committees to exercise oversight of the U.S. intelligence community, and since then, key members of the committees from both parties, along with House and Senate majority and minority leaders (the Gang of Eight), have been kept apprised of sensitive intelligence activities, including presidential findings to conduct covert action. At the same time, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which provided judicial approval for eavesdropping on U.S. citizens overseas or in the U.S. A special court was established to ensure constitutional protections were upheld.
These reforms allowed for bipartisan oversight of the intelligence community. Over the years, of course, there have been political differences about the intelligence community. In 2012, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a report (five years in the making) on the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices that was only partially released in 2014 after a lengthy review process by the CIA. A minority Republican report that reached different conclusions was released at the same time. Intelligence sources and methods were protected in the process, and comity was maintained between the select committee and the CIA.
The U.S. has benefited for decades from allies who trust and cooperate with our intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, which has the lead in most liaison relationships. The currency of that cooperation is mutual trust that classified information will be handled properly and secrets protected.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, it was Dutch intelligence agency that first alerted the U.S. to the activities of the Russian hackers in the “Cozy Bear” unit targeting the Democratic National Committee, as well as the State Department and other parts of the U.S. government. Not surprisingly, public revelation of the Dutch success reportedly have made the Dutch more reluctant to share intelligence with the U.S. Other allies have watched with concern as Trump in his first year in office publicly criticized his own intelligence agencies.
What happened last week with the Nunes memo and the broader decline in bipartisan oversight cannot help but contribute to concerns by allies, as the declassification took place without real vetting and over the objections of the FBI director. The risk is that allied and other liaison intelligence services will become less willing to share intelligence with the U.S. because of the fear that sources and methods may be compromised.
If this occurs, the Russians will have gained a strategic benefit, and U.S. security and foreign policy will suffer. For while our public conversation today is focused inward, it is our intelligence community and the international partnerships it maintains that inform and support U.S. national security strategy.
Kenneth Hillas is a retired U.S. diplomat and adjunct professor in the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine in Orono, where he is teaching a course on the U.S. intelligence community and national security.
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