Joe Biden supported the Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974, which was passed in response to the lawlessness of the Nixon administration and sought to rein in CIA covert activities. The measure made it law that the CIA could not use any funds “for operations in foreign countries, other than activities intended solely for obtaining necessary intelligence” without advance presidential notification to Congress that provided a “description and scope of such operation.” The amendment was a major legislative force in seeking to impose congressional oversight functions on covert U.S. operations. In 1976, Biden was a co-sponsor of the legislation that established the permanent House and Senate intelligence committees in 1979 to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Among his earliest efforts on the Senate Intelligence Committee was helping draft the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, known as FISA, which established secret courts to authorize surveillance, including inside the United States and against American citizens. “We had to find a way to permit intelligence services to move with speed if needed and get a court order after the fact,” Biden said. Decades later, civil liberties groups charged that the process was a rubber-stamp operation for spying on U.S. citizens.
Even as he carved out his positioning on the CIA, Biden made a point to chide the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties activists for hammering away at the CIA’s dirty deeds.
Biden also supported the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, which further strengthened Congress’s authorities over the CIA and its activities. But even as he carved out his positioning on the CIA, Biden made a point to chide the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties activists for hammering away at the CIA’s dirty deeds. “The folks don’t care. The average American couldn’t care less right now about any of this,” Biden said at a hearing in 1980, referring to the ACLU’s criticism of the CIA’s conduct. “You keep talking about public concern [about the CIA]. There ain’t none.”
Biden was an original member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “About 80 percent of what they tell us behind closed doors shouldn’t be classified in the first place,” Biden later recalled. By 1982, Biden concluded that “the committee’s performance is barely adequate.” He added, “There is a lack of prudent and consistent oversight.”
Over the coming decades, Biden would consistently stake out two competing positions about a variety of U.S. military and CIA operations. On the one hand, he would passionately denounce executive overreach and question the legality or wisdom of specific military actions. He would try to legislate stricter rules on presidents and fight for greater congressional oversight powers. On the other hand, he would support a wide range of overt and covert actions; vote in favor of massive military and intelligence expenditures; and offer public support for disastrous, at times murderous, U.S. operations. Among these were military actions conducted in violation of the congressional oversight authorities that Biden had portrayed as inviolable, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.