Overview of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
Responsibilities and Activities
Mission: The Committee was created by the Senate in 1976 to “oversee and make continuing studies of the intelligence activities and programs of the United States Government,” to “submit to the Senate appropriate proposals for legislation and report to the Senate concerning such intelligence activities and programs,” and 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.”
Composition: The Committee has 17 Senators: nine from the majority party and eight from the minority. The one-seat majority is dictated by Senate resolution and, unlike most other committees, does not change in proportion with the overall Senate ratio of majority to minority membership. The Committee structure is intended to reflect the nonpartisan nature of intelligence and encourage the Committee to work in a bipartisan manner. By resolution, the 17 SSCI members include four members (at least one per side) from the Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary Committees in order to ensure appropriate coordination with those Committees. The Senate Majority and Minority Leaders and the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee serve as ex officio SSCI members.
Staff: The Committee’s staff reviews intelligence reports, budgets, and activities; investigates matters on behalf of the Committee; prepares legislation; and receives briefings.
Access: While all Senators have access to classified intelligence assessments, access to intelligence sources and methods, programs, and budgets is generally limited to Intelligence Committee members (and to members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee). By law, the President is required to ensure that the Committee is kept “fully and currently informed” of intelligence activities—meaning that intelligence agencies are required, generally in writing, to notify the Committee of its activities and analysis. This includes keeping the Committee informed of covert actions and any significant intelligence failure.
Limitations: Under certain circumstances, the President may restrict access to covert action activities to only the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Committee, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, and the House and Senate leadership. By law, even in these rare cases, all Committee Members will be aware of such circumstances and be provided a “general description” of the covert action information that is fully briefed only to the leadership.
- Hearings: The Committee meets roughly twice a week for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, generally in closed session. Most hearings involve appearances by senior Intelligence Community officials—heads of agencies, senior program managers, and senior intelligence analysts—who present testimony and answer Senators’ questions. The topics for hearings include agency activities, intelligence collection programs, and intelligence analysis on a geographic region or issue (e.g., stability in the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism threats). The Committee occasionally meets in open session, such as annual hearings to receive intelligence testimony on the national security threats to the United States, and for the Committee to consider the President’s nominees to intelligence positions requiring Senate confirmation.
- Legislation: The Committee writes an annual intelligence authorization bill that authorizes funding levels for intelligence activities (these set caps for agency funding) and provides legislative provisions that limit or allow intelligence conduct. The Committee also periodically considers stand-alone legislation, including laws governing surveillance of U.S. citizens (such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as “FISA”). On occasion, the Committee reviews intelligence aspects of treaties as part of the Senate’s ratification process.
- Investigations and Reviews: The Committee conducts reviews of intelligence programs or events, ranging from routine and continuing study (the conduct of covert action programs and intelligence operations) to formal inquiries.
- Confirmations: The Committee considers and makes recommendations to the Senate for the President’s nominees to serve in intelligence positions requiring the Senate’s confirmation.
- Analysis: The Committee receives and reviews intelligence analysis on a broad range of topics to inform policy decisions.
- Daily Oversight: The Committee, through its staff, tracks the regular collection and analysis activities of the Intelligence Community, enabling the Committee to engage with the Intelligence Community early on if it becomes aware of an issue. The Committee’s Audit and Oversight staff conducts longer-term oversight projects.