The Oversight of too much Oversight

Jun 14 '13

Below is a guest post from Tobias T. Gibson, an associate professor of political science and security studies at Westminster College in Fulton, MO. 


The recent revelations that the National Security Agency collects mass amounts of online data internationally and domestic phone calls has led to President Obama and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper to reassure United States citizens that the actions are legal and that all three branches of the national government have oversight duties of the programs in question. In fact, the entire House of Representatives was briefed on the previously secret surveillance programs. Clearly, the purpose of the presidential press conferences, DNI Clapper’s testimony ,and the House briefing, was to reassure American citizens that there is enough oversight of the NSA’s programs specifically and the intelligence community (IC) generally.

                        Yet, assigning oversight roles to more people, institutions and committees may have the perverse effect of creating more autonomy for an agency. This is well known to political scientists who study principal agency theory (PAT). Of particular interest is the issue of multiple principals. There are two particular problems of multiple principals, the first of which is that if there is more than one principal with differing preferences, the agent may be “play” one principal against the other to get what the agent prefers (first described, I believe, by Eugene Lewis in 1980). This is made possible, in part, due to the information asymmetry in which the bureaucrat knows more than the lawmaker.

Arguably, the best example of this phenomenon is the Iran-Contra scandal under the Reagan administration. Despite the efforts of Congress to end US aid to the Niaraguan “contras,” determined anti-Communists within the administration, including the National Security Advisor and Director of Central Intelligence took umbrage under Reagan, who has told his security advisor to keep the contras alive “body and soul” and devised a plan to continue funding the contras. (Of course the idea blew up, but Oliver North’s conviction was overturned, and President Bush, VP under Reagan pardoned the remaining major players in the scandal.)

            The second problem is that each individual principal may shirk her duties; counting on the others to provide oversight. As Sean Gailmard notes in an excellent article, a “multiplicity of legislative principals attenuates the control they have collectively over a bureaucratic agent.” That is, the more committees, institutions and individuals share oversight duties, the more acute the collective action problem becomes, leading to a preference that oversight occurs by another actor. Because oversight is costly, increasing the number of principals can decrease the incentive for any one of the institutions to actually perform an oversight role, because each prefers the others to bear the cost of auditing the agent.

Moreover, there are a staggering number of congressional committees and executive branch departments, agencies and offices with intelligence oversight jurisdiction. These actors have different preferences, expectations, electoral demands, and the like. In short, the possibility that an increase in congressional, executive and judicial actors with oversight duties may not improve oversight is a major issue. Simply put, as noted by David L. McNaron (albeit in a decidedly different context), “[w]hen responsibility is abandoned or diffused … bad things happen.”

In conclusion, institutions and institutional design matters. Haphazard expansion of intelligence oversight based on a short term political problem is unlikely to alleviate the core issues facing the IC, and may exacerbate the problems for the current or future presidential administration, to say nothing of the deleterious impact on the United States domestically and internationally.