Privacy advocates and national security wonks have for years argued that the House intelligence committee, a key overseer of spy agencies like the NSA, can’t do its job because it doesn’t have enough money to hire sufficient staff. Now that purported Russian hack attacks are routinely in the news, the committee is poised to get a big funding increase.
The budget for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence would rise 31 percent to $6.1 million under an omnibus resolution approved unanimously by members of the Committee on House Administration earlier this month. The resolution must still be approved by the full House, a process that typically occurs with little debate.
While all permanent House committees are set to get budget boosts under the resolution, the intelligence panel will receive one of the four largest increases. The funding runs through the two-year duration of the 115th Congress.
“Increasing resources for HPSCI is important given the number, complexity, and importance of intelligence issues,” Amy Zegart, the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, wrote in an email. “Asking tough questions starts with great staff.”
The committee is responsible for policing the U.S.’s 17 different intelligence agencies, giving them oversight over controversial surveillance practices, covert operations, and analysis of hot-button developments with national security implications. It had 33 staff members last year.
In testimony before the House Administration Committee in February, intelligence committee chair Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, argued that the committee received fewer and fewer resources even as the intelligence agencies expanded in size and as global threats proliferated, including a “rise in global terrorism, increasing threats from ISIL, homegrown violent extremists, [and] cyber threats from our enemies.” According to Nunes, the committee lacks the resources it needs to “hire staff with specialized knowledge” as well as travel when necessary — and it wants to update its outdated technology infrastructure, “to reduce the risks of viruses, malware, and intrusion by foreign actors.”
The Intercept in February reported on a dearth of technical expertise within the intelligence committee’s staff and on concerns that this could leave it and its Senate counterpart unqualified to investigate alleged Russian hacking during the presidential election.
While committee funding “helps move them toward getting back in the game,” said Daniel Schuman, the policy director at Demand Progress, a liberal lobbying group, the panel will still likely struggle to fulfill its duties, given the sheer volume of spy-agency activity. The committee is “still fairly underfunded compared to the other committees,” he said. And because HPSCI can’t get much help from outside advisors, due to the nature of its classified work, it relies even more heavily on its own staff — most of whom are experts in law and policy, and not necessarily technical issues.
“This could be a really important step,” agreed Travis Moore, founder of TechCongress, a program that brings technical experts to Capitol Hill to work in members’ offices and contribute their knowledge and skills. “A $1.4 million increase could allow the committee to bring on several staff with strong technical backgrounds. It should be a national security priority to have more of this kind of expertise in Congress.”