International Order & Conflict

The Oversight Role of Congress in Sensitive, Secret, and Covert Counterterrorism Activities

Nearly two decades after 9/11, the CIA and Special Operations Forces have become increasingly involved in US counterterrorism operations around the world – often operating in the shadows and under a growing set of broad exceptions to the rules that govern the lawful use of lethal force, civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and accountability. Although executed, administered, and managed by the Departments of Defense and State and other executive agencies, Congress – as a coequal branch of government – authorizes, appropriates funds for, and has the power of oversight over such operations. The panelists discussed these programs, the tradeoffs involved in normalizing such broad exceptions, and the proper role for Congress to play in increasing public awareness of and strengthening oversight and accountability for such operations.

The webinar was a closed-door, invitation-only program for congressional staffers. The panelists offered a combination of senior-level US government experience and analytical expertise of contemporary policy issues surrounding oversight of US counterterrorism operations. The panel highlighted that many of the programs in question allow the US to secretly use lethal force in ways not previously possible, and that these authorities are now much more widespread and easier to implement. The panel noted that there is a desire in Congress to provide some relief to the Executive branch to make decisions without bureaucratic hamstringing, especially as many decisions need to be made in the moment. However, the panel emphasized that Congressional oversight must be strengthened, and these sweeping authorities should be reexamined to determine if they are still fit for purpose in today’s security threat landscape. The panel also discussed the ways in which the planning and execution of covert operations depend on interagency coordination, which impacts the oversight capabilities of Congress. The panelists stressed that these operations do not happen in a vacuum and different agencies, such as the Department of State, need to have appropriate information, as some operations have the potential to contradict US foreign policy goals in the country in which the operation takes place.

Featured Speakers

  • Tommy Ross, Senior Associate (Non-resident) in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Dan Mahanty, Director of the US Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Moderated by

Rachel Stohl, Vice President at the Stimson Center and Director of Stimson’s Conventional Defense program

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