Balancing National Security Needs Against Civil Rights in a Democracy

A Kennedy School case study looks at how Congress and the White House have faced off over covert operations in the past

October 18, 2001
Kirsten Lundberg

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, a national debate has erupted over the proper balance to strike between tighter security measures and the civil freedoms which undergird a democracy. Recently, President Bush limited congressional access to security briefings. After leaders in both parties protested, President Bush rescinded his order, underscoring the tension that exists over clandestine military and political operations.
Congress and the White House have long skirmished over just when, and how much, information the President, who is bound to protect national security, is obliged to make available to congressional oversight committees, which hold the Executive branch accountable to the American people.
A Kennedy School Case Program case study examines the history of relations between the Legislative and Executive branches of government over intelligence notification. The case, "Congressional Oversight and Presidential Prerogative: The 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act," focuses in particular on the fall-out from congressional outrage over Iran-Contra, a clandestine Reagan Administration initiative to assist an anti-Communist insurgency in Nicaragua, which violated precisely those laws and procedures Congress thought guaranteed a smooth notification process.
In the wake of Iran-Contra, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence embarked on a four-year re-negotiation of the ground rules for consultation on intelligence operations. The case chronicles the initial momentum enjoyed by Congress, as well as the White House and National Security Council counter-arguments and strategies. The end result was the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991, which involved compromises for both sides and constitutes the legal basis for presidential notification of Congress to this day. The case also traces the history of notification from the early days of the CIA post-World War II, when Congress preferred to take the responsible exercise of intelligence operations on faith, through the post-Watergate reforms sparked by the congressional Church and Pike Committee investigations.
The Kennedy School's Case Program is the world's largest producer and repository of case studies designed for teaching how government works and how public policy is made. The cases are written to facilitate discussion-based, interactive learning about policy issues and management strategies in the public and not-for-profit sectors.
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