By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has approved legislation intended to strengthen congressional oversight of sensitive intelligence matters, including covert operations.
Under language approved last week in the fiscal 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act, the House panel proposed doing away with provisions that allowed a president to limit disclosure of sensitive intelligence activities to the "Gang of Eight," the term used to identify the House speaker and minority leader, Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence panels.
In its place, the House committee gave each intelligence committee, rather than the president, the legal authority to limit briefings to its own members. The president would be required to provide congressional overseers with "general information" on a covert operation or intelligence activity where there is a potential for loss of life, the outlay of significant funds, or a risk of loss of sources and methods. Briefings would also be required if the disclosure of an operation or activity could cause significant damage to diplomatic relations of the United States.
The limited members who receive such briefings would be permitted to report any objections to the national intelligence director, who must report them to the president in writing within 48 hours.
These changes are in direct reaction to incidents during the Bush administration in which harsh interrogation procedures, which were not considered to be covert operations, were initially reported to only the Gang of Eight and in some cases just the ranking intelligence panel members. In turn, the members who received those briefings were not allowed to disclose what they learned to anyone.
In another reaction to recent events, the president would be required to keep a record of those who were informed and what they were told -- a provision reflecting the dispute over what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) might have been told by CIA briefers about harsh interrogations when she was briefed in September 2002.
The House committee also directed the Defense Intelligence Agency, under the direction of Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, to prepare an unclassified report on the recidivism of detainees once held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The panel wants to know how many have reappeared as terrorist operatives and to receive an assessment of how many others, now released, may take such a step in the future.
The committee also threatened to put into legislation its request for the Defense Department to be "more fulsome" in reporting to Congress on its intelligence activities. The panel, in its report, criticized the Pentagon for repeatedly placing some of its clandestine intelligence-gathering activities in foreign countries under the category of operations to prepare for a battlefield, which are not required to be reported to Congress.
Referring to the "blurred distinction" between these activities and those of the CIA, the committee report said the battlefield designation is being used "where the slightest nexus of a theoretical, distant military operation may someday exist."
The House panel's legislation has not yet been scheduled for floor debate.