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What does the Senate Intelligence Committee actually do?

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The 15 senators who currently sit on the intelligence committee are tasked with overseeing the various federal agencies which make up the intelligence community. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is immensely powerful.

And as it investigates Russia's meddling with the U.S. election, and possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, the committee has attracted much more public attention.

But what does the committee actually do?

The committee was formed in the aftermath of the 1975 Church Committee investigations into intelligence community misconduct. The 15 senators who currently sit on it are tasked with overseeing the various federal agencies which make up the intelligence community. These senators receive briefings on current and planned operations, and related matters of national security concern.

It's one of the cooler committees to sit on, if not one of the more politically advantageous ones. But it's also a deadly serious committee. After all, one of the most important intelligence committee roles is fostering the accountability of intelligence community leaders.

Unfortunately, senators sometimes get this wrong. Take, for example, the 2014 report by the committee's Democrats into the CIA's enhanced interrogation technique program. That report, which committee Republicans rightly refused to sign on to, was riddled with factual inaccuracies. As I noted at the time, a particularly ludicrous example was the report's finding on al Qaeda terrorist Dhiren Barot, whose British-based terror cell had been uncovered through application of EITs. The Democratic report said that the CIA already had sufficient information to identify Barot an the enhanced interrogation was unnecesary. In fact, the CIA replied, this wasn't true. The committee had embarrassingly mixed up two suspects with the same name.

That report damaged morale at the CIA and betrayed the service of career operations officers who had strived to protect Americans from harm. It also complicated relationships with U.S. allies.

Another reason the intelligence committee is so important is its vulnerability to hostile intelligence services. Because the committee is staffed by politicians with particular electoral interests, the intelligence agencies are always concerned that any intelligence it receives might leak. Additionally, the committee knows that because of their access to top secret intelligence from across the various agencies, committee senators and staffers are viewed as high-priority targets by foreign intelligence services. Because it acts as a clearinghouse for all U.S. intelligence, a single security breach on the committee can be disastrous.

Still, even the intelligence committee isn't the king of intelligence oversight. That supreme authority rests with the so-called "gang of eight". The gang is made up of the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and the top Republican and Democrat from each chamber. Meeting in secret, these high-ranking politicians oversee intelligence activities that the president deems too sensitive to share with the full committees in the House and Senate. These activities tend to be centered around overt actions designed to hide any U.S. involvement. Sensitive CIA operations in Iran would likely also feature here.

Of course, whatever its flaws, the Senate Intelligence Committee ultimately serves a crucial purpose. In any democracy, the coercive instruments of state power must be accountable to elected officials. Absent that monitoring, the risk of malfeasance grows dramatically. If nothing else, the committee reminds America of the difference between us and nations like Russia, where intelligence services operate outside democratic constraints.