The Damaging Decline of HPSCI

    Paul R. Pillar

    Intelligence Congress, United States

    The most frequent and regular interaction that I, as a then-serving intelligence officer, had with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI—referred to orally as “hip-see”) was in the 1980s.  Part of my duties involved preparation of weekly classified briefings, presented to the committee by a senior CIA official, on current developments in world hot spots.  The briefings aided the committee’s discharge of its responsibilities not only as an overseer of intelligence but as a consumer of it, and as an interface between the world of classified intelligence and the rest of the House membership. 

    The committee at that time took those roles seriously.  To the extent I could tell based on observation from the other side of a hearing room and on meetings between the committee leadership and my bosses, a positive spirit of bipartisanship prevailed.  The committee leaders at the time were Democrat Louis Stokes of Ohio and Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois (who later would chair the House Committee on the Judiciary—from which seat he would lead the impeachment of Bill Clinton—and the Committee on International Relations).  Another prominent Republican member of HPSCI back then was Richard Cheney of Wyoming.

    The intelligence committees of both the House and the Senate have been, since their post-scandal creation in the 1970s, important parts of assuring that U.S. intelligence agencies conduct their operations in a manner consistent with the values of the American people.  Much of those operations necessarily must remain secret and thus cannot be exposed directly to the people, and so the members of the intelligence committees function as the people’s surrogates.  The agencies have recognized not only the importance of oversight in a democracy but also how their own existence is easier with a cooperative relationship with their oversight committees than it would be without such a relationship.  Thus the agencies have usually been just as protective of the committees’ prerogatives (such as when other congressional components have tried to butt in on intelligence matters) as the committees themselves have been.  An important ingredient in building a cooperative relationship has been the committees’ record in protecting classified information, which up to now has been good.

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