White House threatens veto on intelligence activities bill

Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Sen. Diane Feinstein: Still working on intelligence proposal.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Sen. Diane Feinstein: Still working on intelligence proposal. (Handout - Getty Images)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The White House has renewed its threat to veto the fiscal 2010 intelligence authorization bill over a provision that would force the administration to widen the circle of lawmakers who are informed about covert operations and other sensitive activities.

When the bill passed the House on Feb. 25, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), hailed it for improving "congressional oversight by strengthening certain disclosure requirements of intelligence activities to the House and Senate intelligence committees." Lawmakers had spent the previous six months working out provisions that the White House still opposes.

Under the House plan, which is similar to one passed by the Senate, the White House would have to inform all members of both intelligence committees of the "main features" of activities disclosed in detail to the Gang of Eight -- the speaker and minority leader of the House, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and the chairmen and ranking minority members of the Senate and House intelligence committees.

In a letter sent to the senior members of the intelligence panels, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag said Gang of Eight notifications are made in only "the most limited of circumstances" affecting "vital interests" of the United States, arguing that the new requirement would "undermine the president's authority and responsibility to protect sensitive national security information."

Orszag also opposed a Senate bill provision that required notification of "any change in a covert action," which he described as setting up "unreasonable burdens" on the agencies, particularly the CIA . The House bill also requires notification of intelligence "significant undertakings," a term that Orszag described as "vague and uncertain."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking minority member of the House intelligence panel, noted that the White House objections were similar to those raised by Republicans, especially regarding notifications provisions.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate panel, said House and Senate staffers were working on the issues and that she thinks a bill can be passed.

Orszag wrote that the notification provisions were one of three items in the bills that would draw a veto recommendation from the president's advisers. Another such provision would give the Government Accountability Office legal authority to review practices and operations throughout the intelligence community. The White House contends that broadening the GAO's purview would upset current relations with the office, which already has access to some intelligence activity, and adversely affect oversight relationships between the committees and the community. The provision would also permit any committee of Congress with an arguable claim of jurisdiction over an intelligence activity to request a GAO investigation of that activity.

Budgetary issues also drew serious objections. A proposed cut of $60 million in the spending of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, part of the House bill, would have "a serious and disruptive effect" on its operations, Orszag said.

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