House passes intel bill over White House objections

House passes intel bill over White House objections
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House lawmakers defied a White House veto threat on Tuesday, passing an annual intelligence policy bill including a handful of controversial provisions.

The 247-178 passage of the fiscal 2016 Intelligence Authorization Act came despite broad opposition from Democrats, who objected to provisions limiting the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, budget maneuvers they called “gimmicks” and other provisions.

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“Passing annual intelligence authorization legislation is the most effective way for Congress to exercise oversight over the intelligence community and helps ensure that the nation’s intelligence agencies have the resources necessary to keep this country safe,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Lawmakers grapple with deepfake threat at hearing Intel hearing showcases political divide over Mueller report MORE (R-Calif.) said on the House floor.

“Overall, this bill sustains today’s intelligence capabilities and provides for future capabilities.”

The bill outlines policy for the nation’s 16 federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Office — which builds and operates the national system of spy satellites — and the Energy Department’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

It sustains the focus on taking out al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups, as well as building out intelligence powers in outer space and beefing up cybersecurity protections.

“This bill is an essential tool in supporting our nation’s efforts to tackle today’s challenges while also directing the intelligence community to make strategic investments in the future,” Nunes said.

“This bill sustains and strengthens our capabilities to combat terrorism, cyberattacks, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, while making every taxpayer dollar count,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement after the vote. 

Boehner criticized the opposition from Democrats, who he said are “so hell-bent on extracting more money for the IRS and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] that they’re willing to block funding for our national security.”

“This is one of the most important votes we take, and Democrats gave it away to politics,” Boehner added.

However, the bill would also ban the government from transferring detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. or a recognized “combat zone,” which critics of the detention facility say would make it even more difficult for the Obama administration.

“We are not safer because of Guantanamo’s existence,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff would support impeachment if White House ignores a final court decision on documents, testimony US finds itself isolated in Iran conflict House Intelligence Committee to subpoena Trump associate Felix Sater MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “In fact, it makes us more vulnerable by drawing more recruits to the jihad.”

The definition of “combat zone," Schiff added, is “so broad as to include allies and partners such as Jordan."

An amendment from Schiff to eliminate the new restrictions failed 176-246.   

The bill also relies on what Democrats call funding “tricks” to skirt congressional spending limits, by using money the Pentagon has largely used to pay for U.S. military operations overseas.

Those measures, among others, prompted the White House to threaten a veto of the bill.

“While there are areas of agreement with the committee, the administration strongly objects to several provisions of the bill,” the White House said on Monday. “If this bill were presented to the president, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the president that he veto it.”

The White House also said that it was opposed to provisions restricting intelligence agencies from sharing secret information in response to foreign government investigations, as well as a measure trying to expand the role of a new cybersecurity center and new reporting requirements.

Ahead of the Tuesday afternoon vote, multiple lawmakers had also raised objections to a portion of the bill limiting a small federal privacy watchdog from accessing information related to “covert action.” Proposed amendments to eliminate that provision were not granted a vote on the floor.

The bulk of the bill remains classified, due to the inherently sensitive nature of the policy.

According to the Washington Post, one classified provision makes a 20 percent cut to the CIA’s secret efforts to train and arm Syrian rebels, in a sign that the covert campaign has not been very successful.

“If these reports are true... then I’m afraid we may be making a big mistake,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Nunes appeared to rebut the report, claiming that “we always shouldn’t believe what’s in the newspaper.”

Now, the attention turns to the Senate, where lawmakers have yet to unveil their own policy bill. Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) would like to finalize that process this summer, his office said.