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Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

Steve Slick
Thursday, August 9, 2018, 11:45 AM

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Review of Loch Johnson’s “Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States” (Oxford University Press, 2018).


There are abundant recent examples of Congress exercising its constitutional prerogative to oversee the work of America’s vast intelligence enterprise. Some of them are good; many others, bad; and several, truly ugly.

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PDF Version

Review of Loch Johnson’s “Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States” (Oxford University Press, 2018).


There are abundant recent examples of Congress exercising its constitutional prerogative to oversee the work of America’s vast intelligence enterprise. Some of them are good; many others, bad; and several, truly ugly.

In the most promising case, the Senate intelligence committee has been undertaking what, as of this publishing, has been a bipartisan investigation into Russia’s “active measures” aimed at influencing the 2016 presidential election. We should recall, however, that only four years ago this same committee fractured along party lines and could not agree on either the facts or the policy lessons from the Central Intelligence Agency’s long-defunct rendition, detention and interrogation program. And “ugly” is the only fair description of the current state of the House intelligence committee and its doings. The partisan antics of its chairman (apparently at White House direction) has effectively disqualified this committee from playing any serious role in the Russia investigation and they invite skeptics to question the very principle of legislative oversight of secret intelligence activities.

For readers of Loch Johnson’s new book, “Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States,” the central question is whether the revelation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election (or, perhaps, our inability to detect and disrupt it) constituted a sufficiently unsettling “shock” so as to trigger a “firefighting” response by Congress. In that case, the oversight model proposed by Johnson would predict a short and well-publicized investigation, followed by a period of “high intensity [police] patrolling” to prevent a recurrence.

Depending on the severity of the shock, Congress might even legislate new structures or procedures to address a continuing threat. This “firefighting” model of intelligence oversight and accountability further anticipates, however, that congressional attention will inevitably shift to new priorities; diligent monitoring will lapse, setting the stage for the next scandal and spasm of oversight. Even casual students of U.S. intelligence history and Congress’s record in regulating our security institutions will recognize this pattern.

“Spy Watching” is an impressive, even encyclopedic, review of America’s experience regulating its large, powerful, and compulsively secretive intelligence agencies. The book’s subtitle implies a broader study of “intelligence accountability,” but “Spy Watching” focuses almost exclusively on Congress. Johnson describes the “benign neglect” of oversight by congressional barons in the first decades after the modern intelligence community was established in 1947, followed by 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” when widespread improprieties were exposed by the Church and Pike committee investigations; and, finally, the “experiment in rigorous intelligence accountability” that began in the wake of those congressional hearings and continues to this day. Johnson is eminently qualified to undertake this study—a highly-regarded professor, author, journal editor, and icon in the small but growing academic discipline of intelligence studies. He served on the staff of the Church Committee and subsequently helped design the modern oversight architecture. He succinctly describes the book’s goal as judging whether “the intelligence reforms instituted in the 1970’s worked.”

After providing a comprehensive account of congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence from 1947 to the present, Johnson introduces his “Shock Theory of Intelligence Accountability”—what this review’s opening alluded to as a “firefighting” model of oversight. “Firefighting” is only one category of accountability in Johnson’s analytic framework. It stands in contrast with “policing.” These are useful devices for characterizing the approaches taken by congressional overseers: they tend to act either as “policemen” who routinely patrol to deter crime or, alternatively, as “firemen” who respond only to urgent alarms mostly after the conflagration is underway.

Johnson employs this framework to analyze both the stimuli and oversight responses to America’s major intelligence scandals. Unsurprisingly, his analysis confirms that the Senate and House intelligence committees function most reliably as firefighters and only rarely as policemen. He concludes that the trigger for intensive investigation by these committees is sustained media attention, although Johnson acknowledges that leaks in recent years of electronic surveillance programs by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden fueled months of front-page reporting but generated only a modest legislative response.

The social science at the core of “Spy Watching” informs at least two other important conclusions. Johnson asserts and persuasively illustrates what any veteran of intelligence oversight knows: “personality matters.” This maxim applies equally to leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees as well as to the executive branch officials whom the Congress seeks to oversee. Johnson offers a plucky typology of the different roles adopted by congressional overseers. To wit:

  • Ostrich” (early Barry Goldwater)
  • Cheerleader” (Newt Gingrich)
  • Lemon Sucker” (Daniel Moynihan)
  • Guardian” (Lee Hamilton)

“Spy Watching” fills these out with a rich supply of examples. (Among the four, “Lemon Sucker” might not be obvious to the reader—by it, Johnson refers to legislators who display persistently negative attitudes toward the work of our secret agencies.) These are, of course, ideal types only; Johnson emphasizes that these roles are often fluid and overlapping, and they can be shaped through time and experience with the oversight process itself. One striking example is Rep. Edward Boland (D.-Mass.), the first House intelligence committee chairman, who began his oversight career as a “Cheerleader” intent on insulating the intelligence community from intrusive monitoring. Johnson recounts how Boland migrated over his tenure on the committee to become a responsible “Guardian” and later the “Lemon Sucker” who sponsored a prohibition on spending for Reagan administration covert programs in Central America.

“Spy Watching” is, by the author’s admission, the culmination of more than 40 years of professional and scholarly interest in the democratic oversight of U.S. intelligence. Johnson therefore goes beyond purely descriptive and analytic scholarship to include an exhaustive set of policy recommendations for all three branches of government. These recommendations aim to promote the diligent, skeptical, bipartisan oversight that he believes will improve intelligence performance and moderate the historical cycle of “scandal-investigation-reform.” Most quixotically, perhaps, Johnson argues for a Citizens Intelligence Advisory Board comprised of outsiders selected by Congress, the Supreme Court, and the president to augment the oversight that the Senate and House intelligence committees are apparently too busy, distracted, or understaffed to perform. Obvious constitutional infirmities of such a proposal aside, it is unclear how such a panel would improve intelligence performance, safeguard our personal liberties, or even be able to function in an oversight ecosystem that is already more diverse, redundant, and intrusive than exists anywhere else in the world.

“Spy Watching” is an important new reference work on a topic that is of historic, current, and enduring future relevance to America’s democracy. It is, at once, a history, a textbook on intelligence, a political science tract, a data repository, and a policy prescription. These multiple roles sometimes result in conflicts between the book’s exhaustive “reference” role and its narrative scholarly role. Thus, key events like the Iran-Contra affair or Snowden’s disclosures are revisited at dozens of different points in the book. The redundancy can be off-putting to all but the most specialized reader. Otherwise useful material on, for example, the “intelligence cycle,” “collection disciplines,” counterintelligence (including unique insights into James Angleton’s personality), and transcripts of the author’s interviews with former intelligence leaders could have been safely omitted from “Spy Watching” itself—and made available separately through online digitized archives, for example—with no loss of scholarly impact and significant increase in readability.

While the history and social science in “Spy Watching” are studiously objective, Johnson does not shy from stark judgments on the legality and efficacy of recent intelligence programs. For example, the text refers to NSA’s “illegal” programs to gather information on Americans, CIA’s drone “assassinations,” and its use of “torture” in questioning captured terrorists, as well as the “remarkable feat of research and reporting” by the SSCI’s minority staff in its investigation of the rendition, detention and interrogation program. It would have been preferable for the author to acknowledge the unsettled status of these and similar questions, and acknowledge that equally experienced, well-informed, and patriotic students of intelligence hold different views on them.

“Spy Watching” is a valuable history and comprehensive study of America’s ongoing experiment with democratic oversight of its essential, but imperfect, intelligence enterprise. Serious students of U.S. intelligence processes will rely on it as both a scholarly source and policy analysis. Just as U.S. intelligence is made better and more legitimate by congressional oversight, the members and staff who serve on the Senate and House intelligence committees should strive to match the high standards of diligence and bipartisanship Johnson skillfully promotes.

Steve Slick is a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of CIA’s clandestine service, and served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform.

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