Democrats, Administration Seek Compromise on Intelligence Briefings
Thursday, July 9, 2009; 5:16 PM
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said today that Democrats were negotiating a compromise with the Obama administration over procedures for how to keep Congress briefed on intelligence matters, trying to deflate tensions in the increasingly heated showdown between some lawmakers and the CIA.
Pelosi said House intelligence chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) and administration officials were discussing legislation that would forbid the White House and intelligence agencies from limiting sensitive classified information to just eight leading members of Congress, unless the leaders of the intelligence oversight committees agreed with the decision.
The House was expected to consider the legislation today, but late today it appeared that lawmakers might put it off until tomorrow or early next week.
"The chairman is talking to them about how we come to terms," Pelosi told reporters.
The language opening up the CIA briefing process has been included in the annual intelligence authorization bills for several years, meeting opposition from both the Bush and Obama White Houses. Late yesterday, the White House threatened to veto the intelligence legislation if it contains the language opening up the briefings, suggesting the provision would usurp the executive branch's powers.
The push to forbid the administration from limiting who receives the most sensitive briefings gained steam in May when Pelosi admitted she had known about the use of harsh interrogation techniques since at least February 2003 but did not speak out against their use because she was forbidden from discussing the matter with anyone beyond those eight leaders on both sides of the Capitol.
At least seven Democrats on the intelligence committee accused the agency of deliberately misleading or outright lying to Congress over the past eight years. Those accusations, revealed in letters this week, were based on a closed-door briefing that CIA Director Leon Panetta gave to the panel on June 24.
"Top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all members of Congress, and misled members for a number of years from 2001 to this week. This is similar to other deceptions of which we are aware from other recent periods," Democratic members of the committee wrote to Panetta on June 26, summarizing his presentation.
In a similar letter Tuesday to Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the committee's ranking Republican, and Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Reyes wrote that in one instance the agency "affirmatively lied" to the House and Senate intelligence committees in its notifications of classified material.
The lawmakers said they could not reveal the substance of the CIA's misleading actions because the issue was deemed top secret.
The CIA's spokesman, George Little, rejected the suggestion that the agency lied to the committees, adding that Panetta deserved credit for bringing past mistakes to the committee's attention. "This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta's actions back that up. As the letter from these six representatives notes, it was the CIA itself that took the initiative to notify the oversight committees," Little said.
Republicans accused Democrats of floating the information as a way to distract from the debate on the intelligence authorization bill, which they had hoped to use as a way to rehash Pelosi's accusation that the CIA lied to her during a September 2002 briefing. On May 14 Pelosi said the agency intentionally misled her in a 2002 briefing on interrogation techniques used against alleged terrorist detainees.
Pelosi said she was never told about the use of waterboarding at that 2002 briefing, even though government records later revealed the detainee had been subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced techniques just weeks before her briefing. CIA documents released two months ago included notations indicating that Pelosi was informed at the 2002 briefing about waterboarding, which simulates drowning during interrogations. Republicans have suggested Pelosi has not told the truth about her knowledge and support of the enhanced interrogation technique, an allegation they plan to repeat in today's debate on the intelligence legislation.
Today, Pelosi said Republicans were trying to distract from the debate about past intelligence abuses and other legislative issues. "This is an excuse, not a reason," she said.
However, Pelosi said she has spoken only twice to Panetta in the last seven months, once when he was first nominated for the position and another time many months ago for a briefing. Instead, she said she receives her regular intelligence briefing from Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence.
A new effort to ease tensions between House Democrats and the CIA began late last night, when Reyes issued a statement crediting Panetta with coming forward to tell the lawmakers about the previous misleading briefings.
And Pelosi said an accord will be reached on the briefing dispute. Rather than pull the legislation off the floor, Pelosi said the House would likely pass the intelligence authorization bill with the language allowing the intelligence committee chairmen to open sensitive briefings to the entire committees. Then, Reyes and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate intelligence committee chairwoman, could reach an agreement "on something that will allow congressmen the opportunity to honor their oversight responsibilities."