Intelligence Oversight Bill Faces Obstacles

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

The Senate has approved intelligence oversight legislation, deferring discussion of rules for interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects that have derailed previous proposals.

But the nation's top intelligence official says he may recommend that President Obama veto the oversight proposals because they broaden traditional congressional briefings on covert activities.

If the legislation can be reconciled with the House version and is signed by the president, it would mark the first time in five years that an authorization bill, setting policy for the nation's intelligence agencies, has become law. Still, there are enough potential obstacles that the bill's future is far from certain.

The Senate bill, approved on a voice vote late Wednesday, took into account a request from the White House to avoid a divisive fight over interrogation practices, which has killed the legislation in past years. But the administration has new concerns about expanding briefings on covert operations beyond the intelligence committees' leadership. The House bill, which has not yet passed that chamber, would require that all members of the intelligence committees be briefed. The Senate bill would allow for briefings of just the leadership, but would require that the full committees be notified of the "main features" of covert programs.

Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, said in a Sept. 8 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would recommend a veto if the change in briefings was included. The Office of Management and Budget had previously warned the House that it would recommend a veto if the bill contained the briefings provision, which it said could threaten the security of classified information.

Beyond that, there remains a sticking point between the Senate and House bills. The two proposals differ on how to proceed with a multibillion-dollar spy satellite program favored by the administration. The House Intelligence Committee largely backs the administration's plan calling for a combination of government and commercial satellites. But the Senate proposal represents "a more capable and affordable" approach, said the Senate committee chairman, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"Five years without an authorization bill -- it's an embarrassment," said Mark M. Lowenthal, president and chief executive of the Intelligence and Security Academy and former GOP staff director of the House Intelligence Committee.

The lack of authorization legislation means that "Congress has been effectively excluded from intelligence policy development" for five years, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

Last year, President George W. Bush vetoed the intelligence authorization bill over a requirement that the CIA adhere to interrogation methods spelled out in the Army field manual.

This year, the Obama administration urged lawmakers to avoid such disputes. So, senators agreed to work on separate legislation on detention and interrogation, which Democrats say requires new oversight. "The committee has not changed its position from previous legislation on the need to have an effective and humane interrogation program that operates fully within the nation's laws and international commitments," Feinstein said.

The bill calls for the CIA director to release an unclassified summary of four memos that assess the effectiveness of detention and interrogation of al-Qaeda operatives captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks "so that "the American people may decide for themselves whether or not the CIA's program was effective," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who sponsored the requirement in the bill.

The final bill removes an earlier proposal to exempt information from the terrorist watch list from the Freedom of Information Act.

The legislation also creates an independent inspector general at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, requires Senate confirmation of the several agency directors, including the National Security Agency, and requires audits of cybersecurity programs for privacy rights compliance.

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