At Center on Law and Security conference, CIA deputy director and former House members consider national intelligence and accountability

A conversation between the Hon. Jane Harman and the Hon. Mike Rogers, former member and chairman, respectively, of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

In the post-Snowden era, traditional actors like Congress and the courts, as well as new players such as global technology companies, are making intelligence oversight more complex than ever. At “Governing Intelligence,” a day-long conference co-sponsored by the Law School’s Center on Law and Security and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, experts examined an array of issues, including the influence of global technology companies; domestic legislative reform for intelligence policy; and the newest frontier in oversight, the cyber operations of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

A new geopolitical landscape has emerged, with Russia and China as major counterweights in many parts of the world, said Jane Harman, former ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In a keynote conversation, Harman and Mike Rogers, former chairman of the same committee, discussed current security threats facing the US. Al Qaeda has regrouped, according to the former Congresswoman, and in Europe, terrorists have tapped the criminal element to deploy logistics. “The terror threat has metastasized into a horizontal threat,” said Harman, “and these groups come together when it’s useful.”

The intelligence community has been successful in disrupting the activities of Al Qaeda and has prevented catastrophes on the same level as 9/11 from occurring, said Rogers, but terrorists are now interested in radiological and chemical weapons—not because the attacks would result in large numbers of casualties, but because the terror impact of discharging a chemical weapon in an urban center would be huge.

“We need a robust surveillance system, the framework of which has buy-in by the American public,” said Harman. On the issue of encryption that the Apple-FBI case spotlit, Rogers brushed off the notion that the choice is either-or. The question, he said, is “how do we align the digital economy going forward with our national security?”

David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA

In the day’s second keynote, David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA, affirmed the agency’s embrace of strong oversight while acknowledging the inherent secrecy of the organization’s work. He first posed and then answered the question, “How can the American people have confidence that their secret intelligence service is acting to advance their interests, and is doing so within the bounds of the law, if they cannot judge for themselves what we do and how we do it?” 

Over the years the US has developed mechanisms that enable the president and Congress to maintain oversight of the intelligence community. Cohen traced the evolution of the CIA’s communications lines with Congress, describing the many touchpoints between the two entities. Oversight, he said, not only strengthens the CIA’s activities but also protects its officers.

“On a daily basis, all around the world, we conduct daring, sometimes dangerous operations,” said Cohen. “But that does not mean that we operate illegally. Far from it. We are a disciplined espionage agency comprised of officers  who operate lawfully. Strong oversight reinforces that discipline and, as I said, makes us better at what we do.”

Posted on May 13, 2016