Feingold sees similarities between Bush and Obama on intelligence sharing

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) voiced his suspicion that the Obama administration is continuing some of the stonewalling practices of the George W. Bush administration when it comes to providing full intelligence briefings to the relevant committees in Congress.

Feingold quizzed the incoming deputy director of national intelligence (DNI) during his confirmation hearing Tuesday as to his interpretation of who should receive intelligence briefings in Congress.

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Feingold asked whether David Gompert, the nominee for the position, believed that the section of the law requiring intelligence officials to brief Congress on covert activity requires those briefings to be exclusive to the Gang of Eight rather than the entire Intelligence panels.

“It neither mandates it nor precludes it,” Gompert responded, adding that he had discussed the issue with his lawyers at DNI after a meeting with Feingold last week.

“I think that’s not a reasonable [interpretation],” Feingold quickly retorted.

He then asked whether Gompert believed the real question about how much Congress should be briefed should focus on how and when, and not whether, it should be briefed.

Gompert then tried to provide some assurance.

“I would agreed with [DNI Dennis] Blair that it is not whether to provide clear notifications [to Congress], but how,” he said. “I think … being open with you and providing full and timely briefings is part of keeping that public trust … which helps makes us be more effective.”

Feingold said he has trouble assessing whether the Obama administration is using the Gang of Eight process properly because he’s not a member of that elite group. The Gang of Eight consists of the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate and House and the leading Democrat and Republican on the Senate and House Intelligence committees. Feingold is a member of the Intelligence Committee, but not its chairman.

In June, Feingold voted against the nominations of Stephen Preston to be the CIA’s general counsel and Robert Litt to be the DNI’s general counsel because he believed they misread the National Security Act’s congressional notification provisions. Specifically, Preston and Litt determined that, even though the Gang of Eight provision is only in Section 503, which covers covert action, and not in Section 502, which covers other intelligence activities, the authority to brief only the Gang of Eight could be read into the latter.

Gompert’s response to Feingold appeared to show an alignment with Preston’s and Litt’s interpretation.

Feingold has been complaining for years about the way the intelligence community has kept Congress informed, but the issue became even more sensitive during the summer when Democrats began complaining that the CIA had not kept them informed about a secret counterterrorism program because then-Vice President Dick Cheney was trying to conceal it from Congress.

The public furor quickly focused on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and what she knew and when she knew it after Republicans claimed she was briefed as a member of the Gang of Eight. CIA Director Leon Panetta informed all of the members of the Intelligence committees after he found out that they had not been kept informed about the program in a timely manner.

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While Feingold has applauded the efforts the Obama administration has made to end torture, he has repeatedly complained that the Obama administration has failed to provide enough disclosure to members and staffers on the Intelligence committees. While he has said the new administration is clearly more open than the Bush regime, earlier this year he accused the intelligence community of continuing to “stonewall and roadblock” information to the Intelligence panels.

In a related point, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the administration and intelligence community have an opportunity to fix over-classification problems. He warned Gompert that he would continue to scrutinize which information is declassified and why that power and those decisions remain controlled by the executive branch of government.

Feingold has become one of the president’s most vocal Democratic critics. A week ago Feingold scolded the White House for failing to show up to an oversight hearing to answer questions about executive-branch czars.