Intelligence bill dispute splits Dems

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, wants to move an intelligence authorization bill to President Obama’s desk as soon as possible. The effort to move the stalled legislation has intensified this week after The Washington Post published its investigative series about flaws and overlap in the nation’s intelligence and homeland security systems.

Pelosi is holding up the bill and refusing to schedule a House vote on it until the White House agrees to changes to how the intelligence community informs Congress about its operations.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Reyes said he was in the middle of talks between the White House and Pelosi to find the right compromise.

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“Standoff? What standoff?” he said with a smile, quickly adding that he wants to see the bill move as quickly as possible. “I’m actually working with the White House and Pelosi to see if we can reach a deal right now.”

Asked if the talks had progressed, Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly referred to an earlier statement that Pelosi is working with the White House and congressional colleagues to “ensure that Congress has strong, effective oversight of the intelligence community.”

Pelosi has a strong ally in Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a senior member of the panel.

Eshoo praised the Post investigation, which she said “in so many ways makes the case for strong oversight — and that’s Congress’s job.”

Pelosi and Eshoo have been calling for greater oversight of the intelligence community for years, and Eshoo said Congress should be willing to go to the mat to exert its rightful authority.

“This is like trying to put socks on an octopus,” she exclaimed, noting that winning the battle for strong oversight is more important than passing an intelligence authorization this year even though Congress has not done so for five years.

The intra-party dispute is a classic tug-of-war between the two branches of government. Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, believes that executive power limits exactly what top intelligence agencies have to tell Congress about their operations.

Pelosi and Eshoo specifically want the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to have greater powers to review and audit intelligence agencies.

Obama disagrees, and he seems to have convinced Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the last week to give up the fight. Feinstein and Pelosi had been standing in solidarity for months, refusing to move the intelligence measure without beefed-up oversight requirements, including an enhanced GAO role. Feinstein had the added power of being able to stall Senate confirmation of James Clapper, Obama’s choice to be director of national intelligence.

Under pressure from the White House, however, Feinstein held a hearing for Clapper Tuesday and late last week stripped a provision from the intelligence measure that would have ensured authorized GAO access to the intelligence community, although the bill included language strengthening reporting requirements.

Feinstein and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the panel, then called on the House to act.

Earlier this month, Feinstein expressed frustration with Pelosi, telling The Hill, “It’s been five years since anyone has been able to get [an intelligence authorization] bill through. That weakens the committee, it doesn’t strengthen it. If you want strong congressional oversight, you have to begin to pass these bills.”

In its new report on the intelligence authorization act, the Senate Intelligence Committee said further study was needed before it could endorse GAO oversight.

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“The committee believes it is important to explore further the scope of current GAO arrangements with the intelligence community, the history of GAO’s work on classified matters outside of the intelligence community, existing GAO procedures for working with classified information and the extent to which future GAO investigations and audits of the intelligence community can be conducted by mutual agreement,” the panel stated.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), however, disagreed.

“The new Senate markup of the intelligence authorization bill has some features that would improve accountability,” Feingold said in a statement appended to the committee report. But it “removes many other important provisions … that were aimed at improving oversight, transparency, as well as accountability.”

In his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Clapper gave the GAO high marks for its intelligence work.

“The GAO produced very useful studies,” Clapper said. “I would cite as a specific recent case in point the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] road map that we’re required to maintain and the GAO has critiqued us on that.

“I’ve been very deeply involved in personnel security clearance reform,” he said. “The GAO has held our feet to the fire on ensuring compliance with [intelligence reform legislation] guidelines on timeliness of clearances and of late has also insisted on the quality metrics for ensuring appropriate clearances.

“So I think the GAO serves a useful purpose for us,” Clapper told Feingold.