Democrats say their hands are tied by nature of intelligence briefings

Months — likely years — before news broke that the Central Intelligence Agency was running a secret network of prisons for terrorist suspects, several key members of Congress, including a handful of senior Democrats, were briefed about the their existence, but were sworn to secrecy.

President Bush is required by law to ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are fully informed of the U.S. intelligence activities.

In certain select cases, such as the CIA prisons and the administration’s warrantless domestic spying program, the information at first is limited to the so-called Group of Eight, which consists of the Senate and House majority and minority leaders and the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House select committees on intelligence and potentially a few other key members of the intelligence committees. 

Despite this policy and an open admission from Bush that he informed members of Congress about the prisons, it’s difficult to pin down who knew and what they knew because the lawmakers continue to refuse to acknowledge whether they were briefed or not.

With national security at the forefront in this year’s election and tension within the GOP and between the two parties over the treatment and prosecution of detainees in the war on terror on full display (especially when it comes to CIA operations), congressional leaders, especially Democrats who are in the know, find themselves in an awkward position, of being unable to openly criticize some of the Bush administration’s policies.

When the White House briefs the Group of Eight on highly sensitive issues, the lawmakers cannot have any staff members with them, cannot take notes and cannot share any of the information with other lawmakers or their staff.

“We go into those briefings alone,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence not long after the New York Times exposed the eavesdropping program. “We have no ability to consult staff. We have no ability to consult constitutional experts or legal experts.”

That, in turn, makes it difficult to attempt to change the clandestine policies or conduct proper oversight, Harman said in an interview with The Hill.

“It is very hard to deal with an incomplete deck of cards,” she said.

Harman has been trying to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on classified material beyond the select Group of Eight.

“The process has been abused,” she said. “This administration is restricting access unfairly.”

Still, no matter how critical she may be of the administration’s actions, Harman said she would never use the nation’s top secrets for political gain.

“But I do not want the process abused by the administration, by denying us the information and by putting us in a box where we can’t do enough research and claiming we approved their actions,” she said. “I want to make sure that we perform our duties.”

Harman said the Bush administration has heeded the objections of several members of the intelligence panel and now briefs more members on the issues.

Almost two years ago, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) started pushing the White House to brief the full
 intelligence committee on the CIA’s interrogation practices, and at the time the administration asked him to drop the matter.

As part of his series of national security speeches earlier this month, President Bush acknowledged the existence of the prisons and said that he had briefed members of Congress. Rockefeller, however, has complained that he was never fully briefed on the details of the CIA detention program.

The Bush administration on Friday struck a deal with three maverick GOP Senators on the interrogation and trial of terrorism suspects, which in effect will allow the CIA secret interrogation program to continue.

In the past, Rockefeller has said that his committee must have answers to key questions concerning the “alleged clandestine detention facilities...so we can ensure that the intelligence activities of this nation are both effective and lawful.”

Others are not nearly as outspoken as Rockefeller. Most members who were briefed about the prisons have kept quiet even after the White House’s public acknowledgement because, other than the fact that the president said they existed, everything else about them remains technically highly classified information.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is not necessarily relieved that Bush finally acknowledged the prisons’ existence publicly, according to a Democratic source.

“There still are boundaries of classification,” the source said. “You can’t talk about anything else that has not been declassified.”

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats and critical GOP members must keep any and all outrage about clandestine operations completely bottled up.

“There are certain things you can do: make the objections known to the others on the committee and the folks who brief you,” said a former administration official familiar with the rules governing what lawmakers can and cannot do in relation to classified programs.

“When members had objections or questions, we dealt with them on an individual level, and more times than not, that effort was found to be satisfactory. There are ways to answer those [questions and concerns] internally.”

Lawmakers can also address matters as part of the intelligence authorization process, most portions of which are classified, said the former administration official.

“They have an ability to make an impact and that is called telling the agency you can’t do it,” said the former official. “Did that happen [in the case of the CIA prisons?] We do not know because it is classified.”

Harman said that she cannot acknowledge what she knew about the CIA prisons, but added: “Our entire committee has been exploring oversight of the subject.”

This year some Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have registered concern about the administration’s covert activities. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment that would require more White House briefings on intelligence matters.

When asked whether she knew about the secret prisons, Feinstein declined to answer, saying only: “concerns have been raised. That is why the president has moved everyone into a block facility in Guantanamo and in no other block prison in the world.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said it was inappropriate for him to talk about whether he knew about the CIA prisons before the public knew.

However, he has accused the administration of “over-classifying” information, for “political security” reasons and has called for the de-classification of the report into Iraq prewar intelligence.

Another member of the intelligence committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), openly admitted that she did not know about the prisons.

In return, GOP members who were aware of the CIA prisons have called for an investigation into who leaked the information to the Washington Post, which first reported the story. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have called on the intelligence committee chairmen in both chambers to conduct an investigation.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House committee, took on the responsibility to investigate the leaks. But Democrats jumped on the opportunity to press for investigations into possible leaks of classified information, such as the disclosure of the name of secret CIA operative Valerie Plame. 

“If Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Frist are finally ready to join Democrats’ demands for an investigation of possible abuses of classified information, they must direct the House and Senate intelligence committees to investigate all aspects of that issue,” Pelosi said.

Rep. Harman questioned the timing of Bush’s admission about the prisons.

“The timing is suspicious. He has been compelled to come to Congress because of the Supreme Court decision in Hamdan in June. He could have come to Congress right after that decision. ... He comes now when this month, 24-7, is going to be all terror and nothing but terror,” she said on a CNN news program right after the President announced the existence of those detention centers.

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