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Posted at 8:51 PM ET, 06/23/2010

Eleanor Hill, spy probe veteran, likes oversight bill

By Jeff Stein

Eleanor Hill, who has been poking into the dark corners of U.S. spy agencies for a long time now, thinks one of the tough new oversight measure drafted by the House intelligence committee is pretty good.

That’s the one that establishes an uber-inspector general for the entire intelligence community.

This and other important measures in the draft are acceptable to the White House, the panel’s spokeswoman, Courtney Littig, told The Atlantic’s Mark Ambinder.

That’s good news, says Hill, who was the Defense Department’s inspector general just a few years before she ran the congressional joint inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.

Whatever measures the intelligence panels come up with, she says, they have got to include much, much stronger oversight of the spy agencies.

Over lunch this week, Hill recounted her frustrations with Intelligence Community resistance to giving Congress, much less the public, access to relevant information during the post 9/11 inquiries.

But it was during her four years at the Pentagon in the 1990s that she learned that some IGs are often so busy with major issues like weapons systems and federal contracting that they don't have much time left, or resources and expertise, to dig deeply into what's going on in the intelligence components.

Her own solution was to establish a special IG division at the Defense Department just to focus on intelligence issues.

But today, throughout the Intelligence Community, “They need more eyes on the problems,” she said.

And although she’s okay with the uber-IG idea, she really likes an alternative that hasn’t gotten traction: letting the Government Accountability Office get its teeth into the spooks.

“At a time when intelligence is so critical, the challenges facing the intelligence community so difficult, and the potential for disastrous mistakes so obvious, why wouldn't we want the best possible oversight?” she said in a later e-mail.

“GAO is a highly experienced and professional oversight organization that is quite capable of protecting sensitive intelligence information. With all the mishaps reported over the years, we need more, not less, oversight of intelligence activities: GAO would be a welcome addition, in my view.”

As for the uber-intelligence IG, she said “the Intelligence Community includes a number of (agencies) in which intelligence is just one small part of a broader, and far more visible, departmental mission” -- such as at the Treasury, State and Justice departments, to name a few.

“Under such circumstances it can be difficult for the Departmental IG to maintain the kind of attention that is needed to oversee highly secret intelligence programs and operations.”

“A community-wide IG would help insure a focused look at intelligence, with the benefit of highly cleared investigators and auditors experienced in intelligence operations,” she added. “It would also establish an oversight body capable of crossing departmental lines to identify the kinds of persistent interagency problems, like lack of information sharing, that we have seen in the past.

“The one danger might be, however, that an IC-wide IG might get too focused on the larger intelligence components, with some of the smaller entities getting less oversight,” Hill said.

Virtually every cabinet department worthy of its name has an intelligence unit doing something somewhere.

Whatever the oversight formula, she said, “you need a core of people who really know intelligence.”

By Jeff Stein  | June 23, 2010; 8:51 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Politics  
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