By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006; A07
The Bush administration briefed top lawmakers on a significant intelligence program only after a key Republican committee chairman angrily complained of being left in the dark, the chairman said yesterday.
House intelligence committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) would not describe the program, but he said it was significant enough that the administration should have briefed him and others voluntarily, without waiting for them to learn of it through government tipsters.
"There was at least one major -- what I consider significant -- activity that we had not been briefed on that we have now been briefed on," Hoekstra said on "Fox News Sunday." "Some people within the intelligence community brought to my attention some programs that they believed we had not been briefed on. They were right."
Hoekstra said the briefings took place after he complained in a May 18 letter to President Bush of hearing about "alleged Intelligence Community activities" not described to committee members in classified briefings. "If these allegations are true," he wrote to Bush, "they may represent a breach of responsibility by the Administration, a violation of law and . . . a direct affront to me and the Members of this committee."
Yesterday, Hoekstra appeared mollified. But he said he still believes the administration falls short of its legal obligations to brief key congressional members on significant intelligence operations.
"I wanted to reinforce to the president and to the executive branch and the intelligence community how important, and by law the requirement, that they keep the legislative branch informed of what they are doing," he said. "It is not optional for this president or any president or people in the executive community not to keep the intelligence committees fully informed of what they are doing."
Numerous Democrats and civil liberties groups have alleged that the administration ignores laws involving due process and congressional notification in conducting surveillance and intelligence programs in the name of fighting terrorism. Until Hoekstra's May 18 letter was disclosed Saturday by the New York Times, the most prominent Republican questioning the administration's tactics was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Hoekstra's remarks left unclear the nature of the intelligence programs he alluded to in his letter. He did not specify whether they involved domestic surveillance, a contentious area in which newspapers have reported about programs involving warrantless wiretaps, extensive gathering of phone records and monitoring of international bank transactions. Hoekstra, like many other GOP lawmakers, has defended the programs as important tools in combating terrorism, and he has resisted Democrats' calls for full inquiries into the programs' legality.
Hoekstra also had shown deep interest in an April report by the National Ground Intelligence Center regarding 500 chemical munitions shells that Iranian troops had buried in the 1980s, which were uncovered in 2004. Hoekstra and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have said the shells justify claims that deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but the administration has not embraced those assertions. On June 29, Hoekstra complained in a letter to Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte about an administration background briefing for reporters that played down the shells' significance.
Sources said yesterday that they believe Hoekstra did not hear of the report on the shells until after he wrote to Bush.
An aide to Hoekstra said he could not elaborate on the chairman's letter to Bush or his remarks yesterday. The chairman did not respond to a request for an interview.
Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said in a statement that she agrees with Hoekstra that "vigorous congressional oversight is impossible unless the administration shares critical information with the appropriate committees of Congress."