House Panel Approves Bill Expanding Oversight of NSA

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

The House intelligence committee late Thursday approved measures to strengthen oversight of the National Security Agency and the overall intelligence community, including by making the jobs of NSA director and general counsel subject to Senate confirmation.

The committee also voted to include provisions that would establish independent inspectors general at the NSA and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who could not be fired by the heads of those agencies. The latter position would have expanded authority to investigate all 16 intelligence agencies under the director's oversight.

The panel's intelligence authorization bill, which was approved on a party-line voice vote and now goes to the House floor, would also establish the new position of NSA associate director for compliance and training so that the agency has a senior-level official focusing solely on ensuring that personnel comply with laws and court orders.

The bill also would end the statutory authority of the executive branch to limit briefings on classified, covert action to the "Gang of Eight," the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the House and Senate senior leadership.

Together these measures, Democrats say, represent an attempt to make the intelligence agencies more accountable to Congress. In recent years, controversies including disclosures of the NSA's warrantless surveillance program and the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques have led to calls for greater oversight.

Though some of these provisions have been already adopted by either the House or the Senate, this year, with Democrats in control of both chambers and the White House, committee leaders say they think these measures stand a good chance of becoming law.

"It is my hope that, for the first time in five years, Congress will be back in the business of authorizing by getting a bill to the president's desk that he can sign," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

But Republicans said the bill is flawed. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the panel's top Republican, said the Gang of Eight measure had less to do with strengthening oversight and more to do with providing political cover for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who accused the CIA of misleading her in a 2002 briefing by saying that waterboarding had not yet been used on any detainees. CIA records indicate that Pelosi was told about the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

Hoekstra criticized the Democrats for opposing a GOP measure to bar the use of intelligence funds to pay foreign governments for taking detainees released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which President Obama has pledged to close.

Making the top NSA jobs subject to Senate confirmation would strengthen accountability to the president and Congress, a congressional aide noted, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. At present, the CIA's general counsel must be confirmed by the Senate, but the Obama administration has renewed a proposal introduced by the Bush administration to remove the confirmation requirement.

Stewart A. Baker, who served as NSA general counsel from 1992 to 1994, said that requiring confirmation would "undercut a long tradition of nonpartisanship" in the job. Baker was appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and retained by a Democrat, President Bill Clinton. "This is effectively a proposal to politicize the job," he said.

The bill also includes a provision by Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) requiring the videotaping of CIA interrogations of detainees arrested in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The classified recordings would be available to intelligence personnel, who could examine them for potential intelligence missed during the initial interrogation, aides to Holt said.

The provision is designed to help prevent abuse of detainees, such as that disclosed in 2004 at the Abu Ghraib U.S. military prison in Iraq, the aides said.

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