Committees failed to share info for weeks

Lawmakers experienced their own intelligence-sharing breakdown while criticizing the intelligence community for poor communication that failed to stop a Christmas Day bombing attempt.

During the holiday recess, at least two congressional committees waited nearly two weeks to share classified State Department notifications to individual member offices about two more Guantánamo Bay detainees the administration was planning to transfer overseas.

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Aides cited office closures during the holidays as a reason for the delays.

Critics say the notifications should have received top-priority attention, especially after an attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day and revelations that a senior leader in the al Qaeda group in Yemen that claimed responsibility for the attack had been a Guantánamo detainee.

The State Department on Dec. 22 sent notification to several House and Senate committees with jurisdiction. But aides to the House Intelligence Committee did not scan the documents into the secure computer system so other members and aides could access them until Jan. 4, according to a lawmaker on the panel.

“The documents came to the committee when everybody was gone,” the lawmaker said. “We had a committee that wasn’t working for 13 days, and that’s not good.”

Mike Delaney, staff director of the House intelligence panel, said the office was open except for three days during the two-week period in question. Panel spokesmen, however, did not respond to requests to name the staffers who were in the office on each day in question.

"The Committee was open for business daily during the December recess, save Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day," Delaney said in a statement. "Throughout the holiday season, staffers were in the office and fully engaged in monitoring the developments related to Flight 253 and the attack in Khost, Afghanistan. Any implication or report otherwise is false."

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) experienced a similar two-week delay in information sharing, according to an e-mail notification.

The e-mail urged legislative aides in member offices to come by the panel’s offices “ASAP” if they wish to read the detainee bios and the State Department threat assessment evaluations about them. The e-mail heading read: “Two classified notices of intent — short wait period” and was sent to members on Jan. 5. The names of the sender and recipients were erased from the e-mail obtained by The Hill.

“Two classified notices of intent to transfer detainees have been received by SASC over the holiday period,” an unidentified aide wrote in the e-mail.

“There is a very short wait-period given the passage of days over the holiday period. If you wish to read them, contact [the committee’s security clerk] ASAP.”

The delays occurred during the same two-week period in which members of Congress questioned how the bombing suspect, who was listed on the terrorist watch list, was able to board an airliner on Christmas Day, and voiced other concerns over communication breakdowns between various government agencies.

The lawmakers are planning hearings to examine the intelligence breach. To date, the House and Senate Intelligence, Homeland Security and Armed Services committees, as well as the Senate Commerce Committee, plan oversight hearings.

It is unclear if other committees with jurisdiction failed to alert individual member offices about the notification in a timely manner. Majorities on the Senate Intelligence, House Armed Services and House and Senate Homeland Security panels either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries about the detainee notifications.

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Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence panel, has expressed concern about one of the two detainees set for transfer in the Dec. 22 notification, because, he said, the designated country “lacks a strong central government.” Hoekstra did not say which countries the detainees would be transferred to because that information is classified.

The Justice Department and State Department declined to acknowledge whether they are still planning to send the two detainees in question overseas because the information is classified.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence panel, said she was not aware of a similar delay in conveying the notices to member offices on that panel.

Ever since Obama announced plans to shutter the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in the first days of his presidency, members of Congress have complained about the lack of transparency on the backgrounds of detainees transferred overseas.

Last summer, Congress passed an amendment to the Homeland Security spending bill requiring the State Department to inform Congress at least 15 days before detainees are transferred. The notifications include bios on the detainees and a State Department threat assessment evaluation and are sent to 29 different offices, committees or subcommittees of the House and Senate, according to a State Department spokesman.

Lawmakers such as Bond, Hoekstra and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have argued that the public should have the right to know details about the detainees’ background before their release. Because members are the only ones entitled to see this information, critics argue, it is critical for them to take the notifications seriously and give them their full and timely attention.

“There is no transparency when it comes to detainee transfers,” said Tom Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The public doesn’t know how the Obama administration is deciding which detainees can be transferred or which detainees are transferred until after the fact. This makes congressional notifications, and passing on those notifications in short order to members of Congress, all the more important.”

Even when they receive the classified notifications from the State Department, some lawmakers complain about the quality of the information in the reports and the 15-day window for Congress to request additional information and raise concerns.

“While we are receiving the notices on time as required by law, the 15-day window doesn’t provide lawmakers with enough time to review or seek additional information from the administration about the detainees prior to their release,” said Bond spokeswoman Shana Marchio. “Compounding the problem, the quality of the notifications is disappointing — some appear to be boilerplate; others contain information that contradicts the intelligence community’s threat assessments and seems to downplay the threat posed by the detainees.”

This article was updated at 3:21 p.m.