Congressional Oversight of U.S. Intelligence: Balancing Capabilities and Accountability

Monday, October 16, 2023
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U.S. Representative from Ohio (R); Chairman, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

U.S. Representative from Connecticut (D); Ranking Member, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; CFR Member


President, Foreign Policy Research Institute; CFR Member

Introductory Remarks

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Bipartisan leadership of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Chairman Mike Turner (R) and Ranking Member Jim Himes (D), discuss the work of the committee in maintaining U.S. strategic advantage in intelligence, as well as ensuring adherence to the democratic values of accountability and transparency.

FROMAN: We are delighted to have the bipartisan leadership of the House Intelligence Committee with us. About a month ago we had the bipartisan House Select Committee on China here in residence, Congressmen Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi, who worked out of the Council for a couple of days, met with a lot of the business community here, did a war game, and presented at a general meeting as well. And it underscores for us the importance of the Council being a nonpartisan organization where we can attract people from all perspectives and be a place where we can have a robust fact based discussion. 

Intelligence right now, there’s no more important issue, between what’s going on in the Middle East and the debate over the intelligence failures there, to what was done at the beginning or prior to the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the selective use—strategic use of intelligence and dissemination around that. And, of course, our ongoing challenges between the United States and China over intelligence, intelligence gathering, and other issues. So we’re delighted to have Chairman Turner and Ranking Member Himes. And I’ll turn it over to our moderator to get us started. 

FLYNN: OK. Thank you so much, Michael Froman, for your remarks. I’m Carol “Rollie” Flynn, Rollie Flynn. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Philadelphia. When I got the news that I was going to be presiding over this conversation, I was absolutely thrilled. Because, A, I’m so happy to hear about this bipartisan nature of having an actual conversation about some very important issues. And, secondly, because there are a lot of important issues going on right now. 

So without further ado, I’m going to get started. But also a reminder that we’re going to talk for about twenty-five minutes here and then we’ll take your questions, as well as questions from the audience on the Zoom. So the first question I want to toss out, and I will get to what is the nature of the committee, and what does the committee do, and why their function is so important in a democracy. But first, I think we have to go to the topic of the day—Israel, Hamas. What’s going on? Was there an intelligence failure on the part of Israel, the United States? Why does this all matter? 

TURNER: Well, I mean, there’s certainly admitted intelligence failures. But even beyond that, for Israel itself, there were operational failures. It wasn’t just that they did not know what was going to transpire. It’s that once it’d begun to transpire, they had no immediate response. That then resulted in the unbelievable atrocities that we’ve seen and, of course, now Israel’s response. And as we all know, Hamas is a is a franchise of Iran. And Iran funds them, trains them, equips them, and has stood them up as a terrorist organization. And so it’s no surprise that a terrorist organization would do a terrorist act.  

What obviously is surprising to the world is the brutal nature of what they did and the shocking aspects of the atrocities. And that really is sort of the theme that we’re seeing around the world, even in Ukraine. You just sort of draw the line of these inhumane atrocities. And it’s resulting in what’s going to need to be a response from democracies of rising up and understanding that there is evil, that it is a national security threat, and we need to respond. 

FLYNN: Representative Himes. 

HIMES: Well, that’s right. It’s a painful question to answer, right, as the Israelis, of course, are still cleaning up the tragedy and doing everything they need to do to secure their country. But there’s no getting around the fact that the entire Israeli security apparatus exists to prevent what happened, and what appears to have happened rather easily. And it’s not just the Israelis who will have an awful lot of work to do once the dust settles to figure out what went wrong, it’s us. And, you know, we’ve started that process, but it’s pretty uncomfortable for us to be caught off guard. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty about precisely what the U.S. intelligence community knew. There’s a lot of press reports out there. I wouldn’t necessarily trust all the press reports. But we certainly didn’t predict the tactical aspect of it. We may have had a sense that Hamas was getting angry or whatever, but we did not see this coming either. And there’s a bunch of lessons that were sort of—a bunch of hypotheses that we’re starting to draw. But it is very, very shaky. 

FLYNN: Well, we the U.S., for at least two decades, have been talking about pivoting away from the Middle East, to China, of course now to U.S.-Ukraine—or, Russia-Ukraine. And now it actually looked like we were starting to pivot away from the Middle East at last. Do you think that was the right thing to do? 

TURNER: I don’t really think we pivoted. I mean, I think that the—I think it’s oversold as a pivot. I think it is actually just an additive. And in fact, you know, our focus on the Middle East—especially in the intelligence realm and in the national security realm—is very strong. Our whole committee—first time that the committee has traveled as a group—went to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt just this last May. We met with our counterparts. We met with the U.S. interests there. And we received international security briefings.  

And through each of the countries, we heard of the concern that at any moment, something tragic could occur, and that conflict could break out. We—you know, the United States presence there, the United States footprint there, has not left and has not looked at the area as now stable and in place so we can move on. And it—and I think there’s been a complete understanding, as we’re seeing now, that conflict that erupts there is destabilizing, even to U.S. security interests. 

FLYNN: Yeah. One of the debates that has been going on for a long time in the intelligence community is, can we have global reach? Should we have global assets around the whole globe? Or do we just not have the bandwidth to do that anymore? Representative Himes. 

HIMES: Yeah, well, so the number’s no longer classified. Eighty-five billion dollars or so buys you a lot of intelligence. But it doesn’t—it doesn’t buy you exquisite intelligence everywhere. There are tradeoffs. And the more we focus on East Asia—and, again, we could talk for a long time about exactly where we are in the pivot—that will have implications for counter narcotics and Colombia and Bolivia. We don’t have unlimited funds. And one of the challenges in this business is that you don’t know where the next thing is coming from.  

I think that while we had very good intelligence and the IC has done a superb job with respect to Russia-Ukraine, we were caught unawares with respect to what just happened ten days ago. So, and it’s not just money either. We were talking about this a little bit before; it’s, are you at the forefront of technology, of understanding what sorts of collection mechanisms are important in different regions? I don’t think the answer to that question today is an unequivocal yes. So I think—I mean, we will not be bored in the coming years as we think about transitioning the intelligence community into a more technologically, forward capable entity in the 21st century. 

TURNER: If I could—if I could add on that one. So I sit on the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee. And one of the lessons that all of our allies have learned from Ukraine is that it’s not just U.S. boots on the ground or forward deployment of U.S. forces or equipment. It’s they need to individually invest in their own security. They need to be able to have equipment and capabilities. I serve in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where the parliamentarians of the NATO countries come together. And five, ten years ago I used to hear all the time that they’d say, well, why would we invest in in our military or our national security? We’re in NATO. Well, the answer actually is, is you should be investing in your military because you’re in NATO.  

And that shift has really—countries were—before they were pressed to get to the 2 percent that was a—you know, the Wales agreement under NATO, now are looking at reaching beyond it because they know they need to stockpile and they need to preposition weapons. And that’s beneficial to us because—well, you asked us about having a global reach. If that global reach is built on a foundation of very strong allies that have committed to their own national security, then we are a significant force. 

FLYNN: Yeah. There’s always been this debate about HUMINT versus technology. And some observers of what just happened in Israel have said there was an overreliance on technology. Can you comment on that, to the extent you can? Was there not enough HUMINT or HUMINT you could rely on? Was there disinformation coming through bad sources? 

HIMES: Let me offer my view on that. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I mean, take a—take a historical perspective, right? Seventy-five-ish ago, there was no SIGINT, right? I mean, I don’t know walkie talkies, or, you know, ship to shore. But there really was no SIGINT seventy-five years ago. Today, everything is SIGINT. But what I mean by that is not that there’s no role for HUMINT, but, you know, we’re sitting here emanating RF, right? You know, and there’s cameras. And so everything is SIGINT. And, oh, by the way, in addition to immense amounts of information that’s collectible over electronic means, SIGINT is now making HUMINT radically more difficult, if not to say impossible, in some geographies. 

I mean, as you might imagine, a Chinese smart city is not a place where the CIA of old is ever going to put a chalk mark on a tree and sit down with, you know, minister counselor. And so we need to do SIGINT very differently. I mean, let me give you another example, right? If you have an iPhone in your pocket in Moscow, you are enormously visible. If you don’t have an iPhone in your pocket in Moscow, you’re even more visible. And so the challenge, of course, is that there’s no substitute for HUMINT in terms of leadership, intentions, motivations, feeling. A lot happens that, despite what I said about the ubiquity of technology, that you need that HUMINT. But it is orders of magnitude more challenging than it was even ten years ago. 

FLYNN: Yeah. Cameras can’t capture a wink and a nod or a grimace, that you’re kidding. 

TURNER: Right because, as Jim was saying, the context is lost. But also, so is misinformation. So the ability to actually do the assessment is impacted when you’re over reliant on signals and images. But in addition, because—as Jim was saying—because it became more difficult to deploy human assets or to interact with human assets, it’s an area where we have contracted at a greater pace than we should have. And I think Israel is certainly seeing that now. 

HIMES: And it’s why, by the way, technology is so critical. And we keep banging this drum. And, you know, the chairman is really committed to this as well, including taking us up to MIT for two days of feeling like we were the dumbest guys in the room. But the thing about SIGINT, it’s all there. I mean, not all there. We agree there’s still a role for SIGINT—for HUMINT. But it’s all there. The problem is it is just a cascade of inconceivable amounts of information. So if you don’t have really good technologies, specifically artificial intelligence, machine learning sorting that Niagara Falls of data you’re out. You’re out of the game. 

FLYNN: Yeah, yeah. Let’s turn to Russia and Ukraine and talk about the intelligence community performance, what we could have done better, to the extent you can. And any thoughts on Russia-Ukraine? 

TURNER: Well, I think it’s one that we’ve done very well. Early on, there was some difficulty in the administration being willing to share intelligence with the Ukrainians, and on a bipartisan basis. The pressure on the administration rose and they changed that policy. In fact, they were so excited about it once they changed it, because the outcomes were so greater, that they held a press conference to say they had changed their own policy and they were now doing very well and were seeing great outcomes. The empowering of the Ukrainians is not just in weapon systems. It’s also in intelligence. But being able to understand what is occurring and intentions, as Jim was saying, is incredibly important as you try to mobilize, really, the world against these atrocities and this aggression. 

I do think that the one area where, of course, intelligence fails, is predicting the future. And that’s where diplomacy has got to step in. And that’s where we do have a gap in diplomatic resolutions to what is occurring in Ukraine and with Russia. There’s not a lot of influence right now on Russia, even though we can understand, perhaps, what Putin is doing and what his intentions are. To bring this to an end, it’s really going to take not just military, not just U.S. intelligence, but really how do we go forward? 

FLYNN: Mmm hmm. 

HIMES: I would just add to that, that what’s really interesting about Russia-Ukraine—I’m a little impressed that they—that the U.S. intelligence community called it. You know, this is traditional intelligence gathering, right? You know, the difference between armored units on the border and hospitals being set up behind those armored units. That tells you something. OK, that’s sort of what they’ve been doing for a long time. What’s different is what Mike was alluding to, which is the twenty-four/seven real time sharing of intelligence with the Ukrainians, right down to the tactical level. That is a radically countercultural thing for our intelligence community do. And it’s working really, really well today in Russia. 

By contrast, of course, think about the intelligence challenge that was Hamas. There weren’t armored units gathering on the borders with hospitals behind them. But, and this is why—I don’t know if we’ll have time to talk about it—but open-source intelligence. I am convinced, and I’m going to find them, that were tweets in Gaza saying: There are three hang gliders in the lot next door. There’s four guys with AK-47s who I’ve never seen. I know that that’s out there. And we need to not just build satellites and tap into cables. We need to take seriously open-source intelligence. 

FLYNN: Yeah. 

TURNER: Just one thing. Another important aspect of what Jim said in the beginning of his comments is the fact that the U.S. shifted its policy on intelligence, and not just sharing with Ukraine and our allies but publicly sharing that intelligence, trying to impact the outcome not just militarily, not just diplomatically, but by, you know, publicly shaming, if you will, your adversary. By exposing what they’re doing and their actions. And that was a really important shift. 

FLYNN: Yeah, and putting them on their left foot, I think. They didn’t anticipate that. We have done that a few times in the past, but certainly this was very obvious— 

TURNER: Moreso recently also in space.  

FLYNN: Yeah, had a real impact on it. What about China? A little bit on China, and the intelligence community’s coverage of China. Obviously, we talked about how difficult it is to put human assets on the ground. To the extent you can talk about a China and how we’re covering it, and how we’re not, you know, perhaps that would be helpful.  

HIMES: Well, just to frame it—(laughs)—make the obvious statement right up front, China is really, really hard. And they are near-peer technological competitors with the United States. In some cases, they may even be with us or ahead us—ahead of us. And they enjoy certain advantages, which is no respect for, you know, the privacy of people in their—in their country. And that makes it enormously, enormously challenging to collect on the Chinese, which is why—you know, Mike referenced diplomacy—which is why really understanding intention through more traditional human-to-human contact—we’re not going to, of course, take our foot off the accelerator with respect to collection, but it’s about as hard as it gets.  

And it’s why we need to put a real emphasis on—not just at the diplomatic level but, frankly, at the congressional level. You know, being very, very careful about how—you know, asking ourselves every moment of every day, are we being statesmen-like in the way that we’re thinking about China, which is so important to us economically? We’re so important to them economically. They have a trillion dollars of our sovereign debt. You know, I mean, we—I think in every moment need to ask ourselves, are we being careful and statesmen-like in this enormously high-stakes endeavor? 

FLYNN: Yeah. Do you think the fact that William Burns is a former diplomat—you talked about the importance of sort of crossing over into diplomacy. Do you think that makes a difference? 

TURNER: Well, we were talking earlier, in the back, that I’ve said it very fondly of Burns that if you had a crystal ball and you could look to the future what the events that were going to occur, and then you took those events to evaluate who should be in the position to handle them, you would have picked Burns to be our director if you knew what we were going to be facing. So we’re very, very lucky as a country that he’s there. Because he has those diplomatic relationships, everybody knows him already, in addition to his ability to run the CIA and understand this conflict in a way that others cannot. I think, also resulting in his elevation to a Cabinet post from the CIA. I think it’s not just a reflection of the CIA’s importance, but of the work that he’s doing. 

But he’s been a great partner to us. And he’s been very responsive to—you know, Jim and I have made a commitment to working in a bipartisan basis. And that has been very, very important. And I want to thank Jim for that, because you can’t be bipartisan alone. And Jim has really made certain that the—that our committee is working together on every level. And in fact, you you’ve said—Mike was saying that you had Krishnamoorthi and Gallagher here early together and bipartisan. They’re on our committee. The China committee—the leadership on the China committee is from the intelligence committee. So we overlap and share, recognizing that China is such a huge, huge component and an issue. 

But, you know, we have—we all frequently say, as we look out in the room—and not everyone in this room is Republican or Democrat—if you all work together every day, professionally get up and work on a bipartisan basis, you would expect it from us. And we’re doing it. 

FLYNN: Yeah. Thank you. Good to hear. Let’s talk a little bit about the work of the committee. I think some CFR members understand what the committee does, but I think the public at large does not. And since this is on the record and going to be released, why don’t—why don’t you just explain, what do you see as the major role of the committee? Where you are now? Where you’d like to take it? 

HIMES: Well, just to follow up on the note of bipartisanship, and I always do say, restabilizing the committee after where we were, you know, with the famous Nunes-Schiff, that whole thing where the committee was chosen to do the investigation, I mean, of Ukraine, Trump, is that obliterated the committee. And that wasn’t just painful for those of us who care a lot about national security and the intelligence community. It was dangerous because the intelligence community is made up of people. And if people think that if I bring this information to the committee it’s going to get used for somebody’s partisan purpose, we have a huge problem.  

The room and others know, the reason we exist, of course, is because we realize that, A, secrets are hard inside a democracy. And, you know, the evaluations of the intelligence community’s activities in the ’60s in particular and the ’70s led to this notion that there had to be a separate branch of government providing oversight to this very, very sensitive stuff. And it’s a huge job for a couple of reasons. One, the intelligence community operates on the frontier of the law and values. You know, the intelligence community surveils. It takes lethal action. This stuff is very, very—this is not what should the margin requirements be for a treasury swap. This is, was this individual rightly killed in a covert fashion? And so it’s profoundly intelligence. And we don’t—it’s profoundly important. 

And we don’t have the benefit of the oversight provided by, for example, the media, you know. If the question is about the Supreme Court or about the operations of JP Morgan, or the—you know, the media is scrutinizing this. Nobody except us gets to see—and the Senate, of course—gets to see this stuff. So it’s actually something that—I love the job, because if you’re a member of Congress you do—at least if you’re this member of Congress—you go months and you ask yourself, did I actually do anything important today? (Laughter.) And in this job, we know that every single day we are both supporting but also scrutinizing the activities of this—of this very important but dangerous machine. 

FLYNN: Yeah. It’s interesting. I remember General Hayden, Mike Hayden, used to describe intelligence as a Venn diagram. And he’d have one circle was what was legal. One circle was what worked. And the other was American values. And so there’s stuff you can do that’s legal and will work, but may not be in keeping with American values. And American values, as we know, sort of go up and down depending on how threatened the public is. 

But a question about budget cycles. I know from my time working in the intelligence community, that one of the issues we had was the budget cycles. If you’re trying to be strategic, it’s very hard to be strategic when you’re getting one year or two year money, and sometimes a little longer but rarely. Could you comment on that? 

TURNER: One of the problem is, obviously, is that Congress’ fiscal—the United States’ fiscal year and the calendar year don’t match, and that doesn’t match with the congressional calendar, which is on a calendar—which is January-February—December, excuse me. Although it seems like we’re December to February. (Laughs.) The Senate is never going to pass bills by the fiscal year for the federal government of September 30. They’re always going to go to the end of the year. What we need to do is we need to change the fiscal year to be consistent with the calendar year.  

It’s not constitutional. And it is statutory. We actually do this to ourselves. I have a bill called It’s About Time, which shifts the fiscal year to be the calendar year. It would save us all in national security about three months because, you know, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Committee can’t do new starts. They’re stuck in the budget from the year prior. Billions of dollars are lost by the fact that Congress can’t get that last three months fix. So we should just move the fiscal year, calendar year. And at least we’d cut down the loss from the lack of Congress getting its job done. 

HIMES: The other thing I would add, I’m going to keep banging this drum. I know I’ve said it a couple of times, but the way technology is being developed today does not work with the way the U.S. federal budget works. I mean, those of you who have served know that, you know, there’s color of money, right? And some money can be used for R&D. It can’t be used for this. It can’t be—it is immensely complicated. And I think most people understand too that if you’re really serious about innovative technology, which is usually software, software doesn’t get developed the way tanks get developed, right? You know, where there’s a two-year period where you work out the specifications, and there’s a two-year construction period, and then—you know, software has to be iterative. And it goes over many years. 

And so—and, by the way, exacerbate that structural problem with the fact that the entire culture of Washington and the IC, and definitely the Pentagon, doesn’t support experimentation or innovation or failure. You know, watch the Congress. Nothing we like quite so much than to drag some general or admiral in front and yell at him or her because something went wrong. Well, you can’t develop technology, you can’t be on the cutting edge, unless you’re willing to accept a great deal more failure than either members of Congress or colonels who desperately want to be generals are willing to accept.  

So we’ve got to—we have to fix that because, you know, it’s the one real advantage we have over China. China doesn’t have really a Palo Alto, a Route 128, you know, technological thing. They’ve got Manhattan Projects. And Manhattan Projects can work. But we are failing to take advantage of this incredibly innovative ecosystem that they don’t have. 

FLYNN: Yeah, that’s a great point. One of the things I always found when I was out in the field was when committee members came out, both from the SSCI and the HPSCI. And basically, came out, met with us, and sort of kicked the tires. And I personally found those conversations far more useful at times than the ones in Washington. And I just would like to know if you have some reflections on this practice? 

TURNER: That’s why it’s very important for our committee to travel. And each of our members—frequently members of the intelligence committee travel individually. There are single-member CODELs. We empower our members to spread around the globe. We have different areas of expertise and portfolios, including different geographical areas that that we focus on. But when we get out on the field, not only do we get to hear about things that we’re not necessarily hearing about, frequently, we get different information. We actually had briefings where people from the IC came in prior to our trip into the Middle East where once we got the Middle East, the people on the ground contradicted the briefings that we got. And we actually said to them, by the way, this is completely different than what we got from, you know, the people who were in Washington and who were coming to brief us in Washington. And you may want to go back to them to address— 

FLYNN: Do I look surprised? 

TURNER: Yes, exactly. (Laughter.) And so it’s important for us to be there because we’re also that quality control, right? Because if we hear it, we get to go back and say that’s not accurate. But imagine how uninformed Congress would be if we only got briefed by people who read a report from somebody who wrote a report who talked to somebody who was out in the field? 

HIMES: I’ll tell you an anecdote, because I couldn’t agree more with both points. But it’s funny anecdote I will never forget. And I’m not going to name the country. But we made a visit to—and made the courtesy visit to the ambassador. I’m going to irritate some State Department people here. But pinstripe suit. We drank tea with the ambassador, pinky, you know, bilateral relations, economic development, blah, blah, blah. You know, all very, very State Department. And then we went back to see the station chief who was in flip flops and a T-shirt. And he said, I need to show you this slideshow. These are four headless bodies sitting in lawn chairs in the square just up the way. (Laughs.) I thought, OK, this is, you know— 

FLYNN: Get the real scoop. 

HIMES: Yeah. 

FLYNN: (Laughs.) Anyway, at this point, I’d like to invite questions from our audience in New York and our audience out on Zoom, our virtual audience. And I’d like to remind you all that this is on the record. OK, let’s take from this gentleman here. Start New York. 

Q: Thank you very much. I’m Nicholas Rostow. Twenty-odd years ago I served as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And I have to say, it is like a breath of fresh air listening to the two of you and seeing your body language and cooperative spirit. That did not exist when I was on the Hill, either in the HPSCI or the SSCI. So hats off. 

I’ve been doing a lot of work on cyber. And I hope you have staff here, because I’d like to interact with them on this. And what my group has discovered is that using AI that they’ve embedded, and native Chinese and Russian language experts as well as geeks of the highest quality, is that Russia and China have rather different cyber operations in place, but they’re going after the operating systems. Chinese in particular. And I wonder to what extent, the HPSCI or the SSCI are aware of this? And what can be done? We have concluded that the risk of a digital Pearl Harbor is not trivial. And because the attack surface is so big in the United States, and everybody’s on the internet, and it’s all vulnerable. And I just wondered whether your committee was focused at all on this. Thank you. 

TURNER: Yes, we are. So, in addition, obviously, to the oversight that we have in the intelligence community, one of the things that we set up as a goal was that we didn’t just want to be people who were down in the basement of the capital who were learning cool stuff and asked questions of the IC. We wanted to make sure we opened up our committee. We added a position that is—works bipartisan. And that is an innovation and technology position that interfaces with academia and industry to be able to pull forward into our community ideas and issues that we need to be holding the IC accountable for.  

And in addition to that then, we’ve reached out to think tanks and academia. We just took a good portion of the committee to MIT, where we spent several days learning from them on AI, quantum, and cyber. There are top minds sitting around giving us an understanding of what the challenges that we’re facing and things that we need to do but helping us formulate our strategy about how we go forward. Because it’s not just that, you know, now we know the answers. It’s also then how do we interface with the IC to pull them forward? 

But you’re absolutely right. There are a significant number of threats that could be dynamics that change everything. If you look at quantum, imagine if our adversaries achieved quantum before we do. And as everybody talks about, you know, signals intelligence and image intelligence gathering, if one day because we’re behind, everything goes silent to us. This is a scenario where we have to make certain that not only are we ahead of our adversaries, but we are very aware of what our adversaries are doing. 

HIMES: Quick add to that. Yes, we’re very focused. More to the point, NSA and other elements of the IC are very, very focused on this. Two things I worry about—at least two things I worry about. One internal, one external. Number one, the inevitable congressional jurisdiction issues. We can see anything that—well, actually, Mike doesn’t have this problem because he’s on Armed Services, as well as HPSCI. But if you’re HPSCI, you can see a lot about the NSA, but when you start asking about cyber operations, oh, well, that’s not your committee. And that’s just—that’s ridiculous. But it’s a reality on the Hill. 

And secondarily, I would say externally, there’s maybe people in the room who can help on this, we have done so much less than we should, with respect—with respect to establishing international norms around cyber activities. You know, none of the analogs for the Geneva—I mean, I know that there’s a group of experts or whatever at the U.N. But, you know, hospitals, right? How do we feel about putting implants into hospitals? We ought to have an answer to that question. And so we just have so much work to do to reduce the attack surface through the establishment of international norms that we have not done nearly enough on. 

FLYNN: I understand we have a question from the virtual audience. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jane Harman. (Laughter.) 

TURNER: Ah, our good friend. 

HIMES: Of course. Of course. Can’t escape Jane. (Laughter.) 

OPERATOR: Ms. Harman, please accept the unmute now prompt. 

Q: OK, got it. Hi. Hi, very dear friends. Let me say how proud of you both I am. And point out to Mr. Rostow, that after 9/11 HPSCI also had bipartisan management. And we focused on America under attack and the fact that the terrorists won’t check our party registration before they blow us up. So there is a storied history at HPSCI, which you two are, are continuing. 

My question is twofold. Number one, what happened in Israel in part was not just an intel failure in terms of signals and human intelligence, but also a failure of imagination. That was true on 9/11 as well. I’m wondering if that’s on your mind in terms of anticipating the threats against the U.S. in the future. That’s one part. And my second part is about the Gang of Eight. The Gang of Eight is the format—the four leaders of the House and Senate, plus the four leaders of HPSCI and SSCI. And it’s a very important group, read into the highest secrets of our country. It was important to me to be on it. I took the information very seriously. How will the Gang of Eight function if the House Republican leadership ends up in a place that is much more focused on a on an agenda to—I don’t even want to characterize it—on an agenda to attack rather than an agenda to build America? 

TURNER: Well, first of all, let me acknowledge what Jane said about that HPSCI had a history of bipartisanship. And for Jim and I to launch—relaunch the committee focused on national security and on a bipartisan basis, one of the things that we did is we reached out to past members. And we opened it with a hearing of past members on a bipartisan basis to inform us of their view of what our agenda should be, as we put together our strategic plan for the upcoming year and as we went to our worldwide threats hearing, which was, you know, the IC coming before us and giving publicly what they see as evolving. Jane was at that it was incredibly important to be there, because she was able to give that historical nexus of we’re restoring bipartisanship so that this committee can work on the important issues of national security. 

On Israel and what occurred, you know, the—I think, Jane, you’re right, that that this is a much broader context of we so many times underestimate our adversaries. And we’re hearing repeatedly that, you know, perhaps Israel didn’t understand or expect that their capabilities would be able to do an integrated attack like this. And I think certainly we’re seeing that with Russia. We underestimate their capabilities or adversaries, but also the intentions. Sometimes we need to believe our adversaries. When Putin was saying, you know, I want to take back the territory of the Soviet Union and go into Eastern Europe and reestablish the alliance of the Warsaw Pact, he means it. 

And so those aspects of where we convince ourselves that it’s just bluster, or that, you know, Hamas’ statements of wanting to kill your Israelis was just, you know, inflammatory speech, it actually is direct speech. Now, one—since you asked me a political question that, Jane, and I will answer this and then kick it over to Jim. You know, I do think—(laughter)—I do think, you know, the Republicans, of course, being the party of national security—got to put that in there—(laughter)— you’re going to see—everybody rises to the occasion. I have never been—even when Adam Schiff was on Gang of Eight and I was, the Gang of Eight, the top—you know, four in the House, four in the Senate that come together to work with the administration on our most pressing national security threats and intelligence issues. I think that we’ll continue to see that that group work together. Yeah. 

HIMES: Well, only thing I would add to that is the tradition has been bipartisan, as Mike points out. And in addition to us doing the hard work, and Mike gives me credit but in the majority, and especially given—you know, Mike is navigating a sizable number of Republicans who don’t want to back Ukraine for a variety of reasons. I don’t have to navigate that, and I’m in the minority. So Mike actually gets a lot more credit on this than I do. But the point I wanted to make was, in addition to the leadership of the National Security and Foreign Relations Committees needing to really put national security first as opposed to partisan aims. And, look, Mike and I, we’re members of parties, and we do our partisan stuff. But we worked really, really hard to keep it out of this discussion. 

There’s a role for the leadership too. By that, I mean the speaker. You know, they appoint members of HPSCI. It’s an unusual committee in that they’re appointed. And, by and large, I think they do a very good job. I am sorry that the decision was taken to put the Ukraine investigation into intelligence. Most people understand that, you know, you’ve got a committee like Oversight, Judiciary that is a partisan war room. I mean, again, the tradition of those committees is of intense partisan combat. It was pretty unnatural for us to be asked to do something that was inevitably going to be filled with partisan rancor. So I’m glad that we’re—that we’re beyond that. And I would hope that the leaders of Congress would consciously try to keep the inevitably partisan stuff out of HASC, out of HPSCI, and out of Foreign Relations. 

FLYNN: Let’s take a question from New York. Let’s go away in the back. 

Q: Kevin Kajiwara, from Teneo. 

I understand the role of the intelligence agencies is to—is to keep tabs on allies as well as adversaries and competitors. And the outset of your remarks, you mentioned that you had recently been to Egypt. And I understand that they are incredibly important partners right now, during the Israel-Hamas conflict. However, while this hasn’t been fully adjudicated, it also appears that Egypt has perhaps made an asset of the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I’m wondering if an ally has—going after a level—a source at that level, or an agent at that level, is overstepping the bounds, and if there needs to be repercussions? 

TURNER: Jim. (Laughter.) 

HIMES: Turnabout is fair play. Let me make the obvious statement, which is—and let’s observe, you know, the presumption of innocence, which is so important. But if these allegations turn out to be true, my quarrel, quite frankly, would be more with the senator than with the Egyptians. I mean, it’s always uncomfortable. By the way, it’s more uncomfortable when it turns out that, you know, the Obama IC, as so publicly was revealed, was maybe collecting on some of our NATO allies. So this is always a thing. And I think that the world understands that with the exception of the Five Eyes, we probably collect. And it would come to no surprise to the Egyptians to discover that maybe we collect on the Egyptians. So, again, it’s sort of hard to pound the table and say, I cannot believe that this was occurring. In fact, if you’re an intelligence professional you would probably ask the question, how the hell did they get that done? But again, allegations. And if the allegations turned out to be true, my quarrel is more with the senator than with the Egyptians. 

TURNER: Excellent answer. (Laughter.) Next. 

FLYNN: We’ll now we’ll take a question from our virtual audience. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mary Beth Long. 

Q: Thank you so much, both of you. And thank you, my dear former friend and colleague. How are you? 

I am—I would like to join—(coughs)—excuse me—the voice that—I’ve been a number of years as a(n) intelligence case officer and funding DOD programs. It’s always been a delight and refreshing how the committee has always seemed bipartisan and willing to put aside politics in the best interests of national security. So I applaud you. And you two are definite representations of that. I also have to join my friend Rollie in that I worry that the HUMINT is underfunded and underemphasized. And I raise that in part because I just returned from Turkey and a number of other Gulf states, and with meetings with many states, Indonesia included, and Southeast Asia. And they’re very concerned about our intelligent capabilities and capacities.  

And the first is their concern of overreliance on technology. The second is what at least appears from the outside to be a time of woe for the intelligence community writ large. And that comes from intelligence failures, like what happened in Israel, but things like the fact that we have serious concerns about at least one member of our legislative body, we have an open debate about a former president and a former vice president and classified documentation, followed by—which follows a number of leaks on the internet by former national guardsmen or current national guardsmen. We have at least fifty-one signatures that seem to be political by some—by some folk, at least, abroad, regarding the very important Biden computer laptop. Just a lot of issues. 

And then the issue of pending suits by some women who were in and within—or were within the CIA regarding sexual assaults. We’ve got a lot of everyone that I interview, and I do tremendous mentoring of teenagers and in twenties, and their thirties who want to go into the intelligence community, and the CIA in particular. But they don’t see it as a career. So we have a dearth of experience, some real concern that our traditional tradecraft has fallen by the wayside. Basically, a low point morale wise, and probably not the strongest public picture that we could have. How concerned are you two gentlemen? And is this just a failed perception that our allies and potential allies abroad have? And if it is, what should be done about it? 

TURNER: Well, there was a lot there. (Laughter.) So let me let me try to package this a little bit. 

You know, first, let’s take sexual assault. On the Armed Services Committee side, you know, we’ve had a very difficult time with the Department of Defense and the culture that was not responding to the need to both protect individuals who had been victims, garner the information that was necessary for appropriate prosecution. And then, of course, the issue of prevention, and how do we change the culture in the Department of Defense. And the Department of Defense was different, because they had, you know, custodial care of all of their personnel, but in addition, they had within them both the prosecutorial system and the court system. 

The IC is a little different. But we are—as a committee, we are now taking up this issue with the lens of Congress has been very active over the past decade of reforming the Department of Defense with respect to the issue of sexual assault. We were very concerned when we took up the issue that it did not appear that the IC hadn’t been taking this issue seriously, that people were left because that they, the IC, does not do the prosecutorial arm or—that they did not take up the protection issue or the prevention issue. Our committee has taken this up. I think Bill Burns is absolutely committed to this. I think he was as surprised as we were that so much work needed to be done in the IC to address this issue so that people could be safe and so people could feel safe. Because remember, everybody who doesn’t feel safe is still a victim. And we need to make certain that the culture changes so that, as you’re saying, the perception is of this is an environment that rises to the occasion and protects its personnel. 

On the issue of—you very well weaved together a bunch of what would seem like isolated events, but you connected them in a way on classified documents, leaks, on things that occurred. And I think you’re absolutely right. We in the committee have taken up this issue, because we do see it as somewhat systematic and also symptomatic of a lack of respect and concern for the issue of classified materials, and the issue of overclassification of materials. So we have taken up this issue, including having hearings going all the way back to try to find out from the archives themselves is what is their relationship with the White House and how are documents handled and identified all the way through, then hearings with respect to the guardsman. So those are areas where we do need to restore the IC’s credibility. 

HIMES: Yeah, I would just add, the issue of the leaks is an infuriating one. By the way, at the presidential level right on down to the, you know, national guardsmen in Cape Cod, it’s just—these are preventable problems. You know, Edward Snowden had no business with a—with a—if you look at his background, as we did, he had no business with a top-secret security clearance. And apparently, this, you know, this air force national guardsmen, if you look at his social media history, no business with the kind of access that that he had. And we can do a lot better job.  

And one of the things I’ll compliment the chairman on, we have taken a very hard look at the clearance process and the fact that it’s fragmented. It’s 1950s-style. It’s getting better, but it’s still not nearly where it needs to be. These are—these are knowable problems. And frankly, at the presidential/vice presidential, Trump, Biden, you know, this is not developing the next quantum computer. This is checking the damn boxes, right? And so these are infuriating problems to me, because they’re not difficult. They’re just the result of fairly simple fixes that we have not implemented. 

TURNER: And, by the way, at our committee, we know how to do this right. I just went put that down there. So all these things that Jim and I, when we get these reports, and we’re opening them we’re like, what the hell? (Laughter.) I mean, because we know how to do this. And I don’t—most of it, we’re left flabbergasted, and then trying to fix the system. 

HIMES: And we get almost no training. I mean, that’s the remarkable thing. I mean, you know, we BS for a living. We talk into cameras all day long. And yet it’s not us, you know, putting this stuff out there. 

TURNER: We know this file does not walk out the door. How hard is that? (Laughter.) So, there you go. 

FLYNN: A question from our audience in New York. Let’s go sort of behind—right there. Right there. Yes. 

Q: Good morning, all. And thanks for being here at CFR. Max van Amerongen, Goldman Sachs and the Marine Innovation Unit. 

Congressman Himes, you had talked a little bit about budgeting process and cycle and innovation. The last several years though there have been a number of organizations stood up—Office of Strategic Capital, Defense Innovation Unit, et cetera. Do we not yet have the right mix of entrepreneurialism and public and private capital to get to that quantum computing and other capabilities that you talked about? Or are we still stuck in a 1950s or ’70s procurement process, where programs of record are preventing us from out-cycling our competitors? 

HIMES: Yeah, great question. And you’re exactly right to bring up examples of success, including the Defense Intelligence Unit, including a couple of different units. You know, the Air Force has actually done some pretty interesting work. We’ve got In-Q-Tel. It’s not 1950s or 1960s, but it sure is not twenty-first century. I could name for you—I’m not going to do it—but I could name for you three companies right now that are producing world-beating visual AI, other software-oriented things, that are going to go under. They’re going to go under because the contracting cycle does not allow for these companies to survive. And we just need to do a heck of a lot better work there. 

It is going to involve being something that the Congress hates, which is looser with our money. Less—you know, a more VC type attitude with our money. Here’s a pool of money, go create something beautiful. And if it fails, we understand that failure is the price you pay for ultimate success. And then it’s also culture change. I mean, it feels to me like the ingredients that lead to DIU is a little bit, you know, looser strings, other transaction authority, for those of you who are OTA, who are interested in this stuff. But also very senior sponsorship, whether that’s Graham Allison or, you know, some general, or whatever. Those two things working together help solve this problem. And we’re just not doing it nearly as rapidly as we need to do it. 

TURNER: We also have in our Intelligence Authorization Act this year creating an intelligence innovation unit that would be able to marry to each of those groups and organizations, and hopefully have some streamlining for pulling innovation in. But as Jim was saying, that only gets you the start. That doesn’t get you to the ability to sustain. 

FLYNN: We’ll take a question from the Zoom audience. 

We’ll take our next question from Glenn Gerstell. 

Q: Thank you very much. Appreciate the conscientious and bipartisan approach of both of you. 

Just to follow up on some of the earlier comments, and I apologize if this—if I missed this earlier. I tuned in late. But do either of you have any particular thoughts on the path forward for the reauthorization of FISA Section 702, given that we’ve got some seventy-five days before the expiration of this very important statute? I know both of you are very focused on that. And I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

FLYNN: You might also explain what that is. 

TURNER: FISA, the Foreign Surveillance Act, within it Section 702 gives the ability to monitor foreign intelligence signals. And with that, then you have the issues of the abuses that have happened with the FBI that have been widely discussed, including where there have been inappropriate queries of the data, even on members of Congress. Darin LaHood, who’s one of those members, is on our committee. And he is chairing our working group task force on the reauthorization of FISA. We’re doing this on a bipartisan basis. We have a joint working group, three Republicans, three Democrats, within our committee who are looking at what do we need to do to reform FISA Section 702 and FISA at large? 

The administration is working closely with us. They’ve already given us draft recommendations that look at both reforms of 702 and broadly in FISA. We’ve been working directly with Jim Jordan at the Judiciary Committee, that has joint jurisdiction with us on possible reforms. And Jim and I are now combing through that list, the smorgasbord, if you will, of what some of those responses of reforms are, and hope to come to a body of commonsense reforms that make a difference, provide accountability, but at the same time don’t inhibit our ability for collection. 

HIMES: Yeah, well said. And thank you, Glenn. Glenn, for those who don’t know, is supposedly retired general counsel of NSA, who is actually working twenty-four/seven to help us figure out how to reauthorize this thing. And Mike’s got it exactly right. I tell my Democrats who I’m cycling through the SCIF to learn about 702. 

Two things are true. Number one, this must be reauthorized. This is not optional. That’s an important headspace for a legislator to be in. And, number two, it will be reauthorized with substantial reforms, because there’s been too much loose querying and other things that are problematic. 

FLYNN: Take a question from the virtual audience. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Paula Stern. 

Q: Thank you so much. 

And congratulations on the bipartisanship here, because I want to tie the tack that we’re seeing overseas with the undermining—apparent undermining of our democratic processes here at home. And I’d like to hear your wisdom on how we assure our enemies that the presidential campaign that is ongoing now, and the critiques and criticism from former President Trump that stirs up hate and may even be related to the kind of murder that went on yesterday of a Palestinian child here in the United States, how we—our leadership, you personally, can, if you will, counter this undermining. Because I’m quite concerned that this is the—the activity in Congress, or lack of activity on the House side without a speaker, is putting us at an extraordinarily vulnerable moment, particularly for advising and assisting our allies. 

TURNER: Well, if I could jump in here, I can say that question is exactly the type of subject matter that we don’t take up in the Intelligence Committee, and we don’t take it up because we work in a bipartisan way with each other. There are certainly forums and formats where your question would be incredibly appropriate and probably be welcomed, but here we’re focusing on national security threats. We’re focusing on the IC. We’re focusing on ways that we can work together to make certain that we address those. And with that, I think I’m going to hopefully have us pass on the—on your commentary. 

HIMES: Well, I would—thank you, Mike, for answering that question that way, because we are both working to keep very sensitive domestic partisanship—by sensitive, I mean emotional partisanship—out of the discussion. 

But I’ll make a point that is not about the parties; it’s about the American people. And I make this in my townhall meetings in Connecticut all the time. We bear tremendous responsibility as leaders to conduct ourselves in a way that gets us away from a world in which politics are dangerous. But at the end of the day, we are representatives and we respond to our constituents. And I don’t ever let a townhall meeting go by where I don’t look at a Democrat who is frothing at the mouth or a Republican who is frothing at the mouth and say: If you are looking at social media, and at the end of ten minutes of doomscrolling you are out of your mind with rage, you are being manipulated by somebody. And by the way, it could be Vladimir Putin. It might be Facebook. It might be whatever advertiser is paying Facebook. But if we are ultimately comprised as a country of citizens who are that irresponsible with the way they think about politics, you will ultimately get the government that you deserve. 

This is only partly about us. It is about the American people. And again, if you’re doomscrolling, and the next thing you know you’re thinking of me as a traitor because I’m a Democrat or as Mike as a seditionist because he’s a Republican, you are a huge part of the problem. And so we just—again, we need our citizenry to remember that their government will be the government that they deserve. 

TURNER: And now you can see why we work together so well, because that was phenomenal. (Applause.) 

FLYNN: I think we have time for one more question. Let’s go over here. 

Q: Sure. Hi. My name is Jay Varma. I work for a company called SIGA Technologies. 

Before this, I spent twenty years of my career with CDC working overseas on infectious diseases. And you know, I’m concerned about the risk of natural, accidental, and deliberate biological threats increasing over time, and one of the things that always worried me with my positions overseas was, you know, what we saw during COVID and other things; there was a real siloing. You have, you know, public health agencies, you have defense assessments, and you have intelligence community assessments. And I think with a rising threat—and what I would argue, even vulnerability—you know, we need better oversight of management of how federal agencies integrate information about biological threats. So I’d be curious if there’s work on your committee about that and what your thoughts are on that. Thanks. 

TURNER: Yes. So one thing that’s important to us as we put the composition of our committee together is that we have people who have very broad backgrounds and expertise. You know, we have people who have military experience. We have physicians. And part of that is because we do have to marry ourselves in oversight to the IC and to be looking at, you know: How are resources being directed? What are the legislative or regulatory regimes under which they’re operating? And how do we get at what those threats are? 

So there are things that we deal with as the big committee, there are things that we deal with in subcommittees, and things that we have individuals who have expertise who help us. And Dr. Brad Wenstrup on our side, who currently is chairing the COVID origins subcommittee, both of those—China and the COVID origins—are populated by people who are from our committee by design. And there’s a—having that expertise makes a tremendous amount of difference because that way—you know, lawyer—I don’t have to come up to speed. I have to make certain that I understand what’s happening, but Dr. Wenstrup is the one who champions this issue for us. 


HIMES: Very quickly, I think we’re on quantum. In lots of ways that we can’t talk about, I think we’re on quantum. I think we’re learning on AI. I think we are way behind on biosynthesis in particular. 

We learned up at MIT in this trip that Mike led that it turns out that, you know, you can store more information in DNA than you can store on a computer. I thought: Oh, great. That’s what I—I mean, I’ll tell you another story. 

So years ago, I was up in Boston visiting a company called Ginkgo Biosynthesis. And you know, we’re walking around and, oh, we use these bacterias to create these scents and we use this bacteria over here to create this color. And as we’re sort of walking through, and, like, oh, and that’s our mammal room. Wait, wait, wait, wait! What do you mean that’s the mammal room? And—you know. 

So, you know, the opportunity to alter genetics to create targeted viruses, to, you know, create new creatures, we—(laughs)—not necessarily our lane, but we as a Congress are way behind on that stuff. 

FLYNN: Well, thank you, Representatives Turner and Himes, for a very enlightening conversation—which will be posted, both the transcript and the video, on the CFR website. (Applause.) 

TURNER: Thank you. (Applause.) 


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