Democrats, White House spar over intelligence bill

House Intelligence Committee Democrats are engaged in a fierce showdown with the White House over lawmakers’ demands for more transparency and oversight of the intelligence community.

President Barack Obama has twice threatened to veto the intelligence authorization bill, first in July of last year, when the committee approved it, and again this week. The White House has argued that the legislation’s new requirements would, in some cases, put American lives at risk.

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Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence panel and a key ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), rejected the administration’s claims.

“Shame on them,” Eshoo said in an interview. “The president campaigned on the need for more transparency and accountability and better place [than the CIA], which doesn’t have any eyes and ears on its activity except for us here in Congress.”

Eshoo was referring to provisions in the House and Senate intelligence bills that would give the Government Accountability Office legal authority to review practices and operations throughout the intelligence community. The provisions also would allow any congressional committee with jurisdiction on intelligence matters to request a GAO investigation of that activity.

The administration also opposes a provision in the bill establishing an agency inspector general to investigate the anthrax attacks, which the FBI has concluded were planned and committed by the late Dr. Bruce Ivins, acting alone.

But many members of Congress question the FBI’s conclusion, including Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the former head of the State Department’s Nuclear and Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose office was targeted.

Possibly even more troubling to the White House are provisions in the bills proposing that interrogations of detainees or prisoners in CIA custody be videotaped, as well as the major changes to the congressional notification system.

Obama threatened to veto the bill last summer because of initial changes to the notification system, and spokeswomen for the House Intelligence panel had said that Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) had been working with the White House to rewrite the section. But the White House rejected the most recent changes as well.

The bill requires the executive branch — including the CIA and other intelligence agencies — to provide information about covert activities and the “legal authority” under which an intelligence activity is being conducted not merely to the “Gang of Eight” — the Speaker, the House minority leader, the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders and the top Democrat and Republican in both the House and Senate Intelligence committees — but to the full House and Senate Intelligence committees.

“The new requirement would undermine the president’s authority and responsibility to protect sensitive national security information,” Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag, wrote the Intelligence committees on Monday.

Eshoo blasted the statement, saying it amounted to the administration wanting to maintain the “status quo” and forget providing any real oversight and accountability to the Intelligence panel.

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Instead, she said, the Gang of Eight notification system should be abolished completely because the intelligence community is not really giving full and complete information to the exclusive group anyway, so any oversight role Congress is obligated to play is thwarted in the process.

“They don’t really consult with [Congress] at all,” she said. “This is really a drive-by, drop-off system. The American public deserves better.”
Rep. Pete Hoesktra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the Intelligence panel, found himself in the rare position of agreeing with the White House on national security matters. But he said the division between the White House and congressional Democrats on something as important as the committee’s authorization bill demonstrates the disjointed nature of Democrats’ positions on national security.

“We’re halfway into the fiscal year and Democrats can’t seem to get on the same page when it comes to addressing the national security threats facing our nation,” he said.