By Alexander Bolton - 07/02/10 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed frustration with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for obstructing a deal with President Barack Obama on intelligence issues.
The Speaker is blocking the 2010 intelligence authorization bill and, by extension, the nomination of Lt. Gen. James Clapper, Jr. to serve as director of national intelligence, until the administration makes some concessions on intelligence matters.
Showing her impatience with her home state colleague, Feinstein said: “It’s been five years since anyone has been able to get a 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.”
Her demands: She wants to empower Congress to use the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the CIA and she wants the CIA and other intelligence agencies to share more information about covert activities with the full membership of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Much of that sensitive information is shared only with the Gang of Eight, a group made up of the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House intelligence panels and the party leaders from both chambers.
And the GAO can only review the activities of intelligence agencies within the Department of Defense but not the CIA, according to a Democratic aide.
Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is not pleased with the Speaker’s interference.
Staff on the Senate and House committees were working on a compromise Thursday after Pelosi blocked the intelligence authorization bill, which had the support of Feinstein, the head of the Senate intelligence panel, and the administration.
Under the terms of that earlier deal, the bill did not include the GAO oversight but did expand congressional notifications requirements.
“We’re in agreement, the two committees, we’ve taken GAO out and we’ve negotiated the notification requirements to three, which are acceptable to the administration,” said Feinstein. “So we have a bill that can pass and can be signed by the president.”
Feinstein said she is worried that Obama will veto the bill because of Pelosi’s demands.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Thursday that Pelosi and Jones emerged from the Wednesday meeting with a tentative deal that would give the GAO the power to review intelligence activities.
“The language allows GAO to do some work by the direction of the intelligence committees,” Reyes said.
He said, according to the tentative deal, notification of the full committees must include documentation and “if at all possible all members of the committee would be briefed but there are exemptions the president has.”
An aide to Pelosi downplayed talk of an agreement and said the Speaker and Jones need to have further discussions.
Reyes said the Senate would have to sign off on any deal before the conflict is resolved.
Pelosi, who served as the senior Democrat on the House intelligence panel, has long been critical of the intelligence community’s willingness to keep Congress informed.
A Democratic aide said the Speaker has wanted to increase congressional oversight of the CIA for years.
The Speaker sparked a firestorm last year when she accused the CIA of lying to Congress about the use of harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, on al Qaeda detainees.
“They mislead us all the time,” Pelosi told reporters in May of 2009.
Meanwhile, Feinstein has told the administration she will not advance Clapper’s nomination before the intelligence authorization bill. A senator who sits on the intelligence panel said that Pelosi’s objections have stalled Clapper because Clapper has refused to take the top intelligence job through a recess appointment.
A member of the House intelligence committee, however, said Feinstein is responsible for the delay because she has insisted on passing the intelligence bill first.
The impasse has stalled what would be the first intelligence authorization bill to pass in five years.
“If the bill is vetoed, that sets us back,” said Feinstein. “The ability of this committee to legislate and put some of its oversight into legislation is extraordinarily important.”
Lawmakers on the intelligence committees say that passing an authorization bill is important for several reasons. They say it would strengthen the authority and flexibility of the Director of National Intelligence and improve congressional oversight of the intelligence community.
“This bill, like previous bills, lays out a series of measures to ensure Congress is an equal partner in intelligence-gathering activity,” said Andy Johnson, director of the National Security Program at Third Way, a Democratic think tank. “It brings balance to what was an uneven relationship between Congress and the executive branch in the conduct of intelligence activities.”
Johnson said he did not think it is necessary to give GAO power to review CIA activity because the congressional oversight committees and the CIA inspector general have enough authority.
He said that requiring the CIA and other intelligence agencies to notify the entire committees instead of just the Gang of Eight of covert activity would make a “world of difference.”
Johnson said Congress has been unable to exercise oversight over important covert programs in recent years because lawmakers lacked information.
The Bush administration told the Gang of Eight about the National Security Agency’s controversial warrantless surveillance program but the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees were not allowed to share the information with other members of the panels. As a result, the committees could not review the program until the media reported about it based on executive-branch leaks.
Members of the Gang of Eight were also told that the CIA was running a black-site program in which suspected terrorists were sent to foreign prisons for harsh interrogations. Regular members of the intelligence committees were kept in the dark until President George W. Bush acknowledged the program publicly — nearly five years after the Gang of Eight was informed.