Limited Oversight: Legislative Access to Intelligence Information in the United States and Canada
22 Pages Posted: 7 May 2012 Last revised: 4 Feb 2013
Date Written: December 1, 2011
In theory, legislatures can perform critical oversight functions regarding all government agencies, including intelligence agencies. But governments have traditionally resisted giving legislatures access to the information they would need to provide effective oversight, and legislators have largely acquiesced to the executive’s tight control over intelligence information.
That was the situation in the United States up until the mid-1970s, when news reports about the Central Intelligence Agency’s illegal activities against U.S. citizens led to the creation of two ad hoc Congressional committees to investigate those abuses and eventually to two permanent committees of intelligence oversight. While the Congressional committees do not have access to all intelligence information, Congressionally-created Inspectors General (IGs) in intelligence agencies have greater access and can serve indirectly as the eyes and ears of Congress in those agencies.
The Canadian Parliament has not been energetic in its oversight of the three main agencies that perform intelligence functions. Parliamentary committees do not have direct access to intelligence information, and members of Parliament have not had access to classified information. On the other hand, Parliament did create independent review bodies for each of these intelligence agencies. Those review bodies have access to classified intelligence information and have been able to provide some oversight. The review bodies report their findings to a government minister, but their reports are generally scrubbed of classified information before being forwarded to Parliament. The oversight situation in Canada may be changing as the result of a recent scandal. Allegations regarding the Canadian military’s treatment of Afghan detainees led Parliament to create an ad hoc investigative committee, and Parliament ensured that this committee have access to classified information. Canada’s experience with this ad hoc parliamentary investigation of intelligence may lead to a similar but permanent approach.
Keywords: Intelligence agencies, legislative oversight of government agencies, U.S. Congress, Canadian Parliament
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