By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 7:13 PM
Congress has moved to reassert its role as a check on the nation's most sensitive spy programs after having been marginalized for years in the management of covert intelligence operations.
President Obama is expected in the coming days to sign legislation that cleared both chambers of Congress this week, imposing new requirements on the White House to keep lawmakers informed of secret overseas operations and the legal rationales undergirding them.
The development represents a shift in balance between Congress and the executive branch as new information has surfaced about the secret activities of the CIA, which has been given authority to kill a U.S. citizen in Yemen and has been operating elite insurgent-hunting teams in Afghanistan.
The fight over disclosure requirements dates to the early days of the administration of President George W. Bush, who for years kept all but a handful of lawmakers in the dark about some CIA activities, including the use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
More broadly, the bill marks an effort by Congress to regain influence over the intelligence community's priorities - and its spending - after years of being effectively shut out. The last time Congress passed an intelligence authorization bill that was signed into law by the president was in 2004.
The result has been a weakening of oversight of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"This bill not only reverses that trend but strengthens our oversight," she said.
Some lawmakers expressed skepticism, citing loopholes in the language. Asked to assess the potential impact of the new disclosure requirements, Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the top Republican on the committee, said this: "Zip city."
The central provision of the bill would make it more difficult for an administration to withhold information about covert-action programs from the House and Senate intelligence committees.
In most cases, the White House would be required to allow all members to attend classified briefings on sensitive overseas operations. During the Bush administration, those sessions were routinely restricted to the so-called "Gang of Eight," meaning only the top Republican and Democrat on each committee, plus House and Senate leaders.
Details about the CIA's interrogation program weren't shared with the full committees until 2006, when Bush publicly disclosed the program's existence and announced that all of the agency's detainees had been transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The latest authorization bill was endorsed by the full Senate but attracted only one Republican vote in the House, passing 244 to 181. Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, criticized the measure, saying it failed to address key issues such as whether detainees at Guantanamo Bay should be transferred to prisons in the United States. Hoekstra has advocated a ban on such moves.
The disclosure requirements in the new bill are not ironclad. The White House would still be able to confine briefings to the Gang of Eight but would have to notify other members that they are being excluded and provide them with at least a "general description" of the program being discussed.
That has raised concern that administrations could continue to evade oversight. Steven Aftergood, an expert on classification issues for the Federation of American Scientists, said the new language amounts to "an incremental step that depends on the good faith of the administration and the committees in order to be effective."
The legislation does not clarify what qualifies as a "general description." A senior Senate aide acknowledged the ambiguity but said the intent is understood. Merely describing a new covert program as "an operation in the Northern Hemisphere," for example, "would not be sufficient for a general description," the aide said.
Because the authorization bill was passed just days before the end of the fiscal year, it does not address spending levels in the intelligence community. Total U.S. spending on intelligence is about $50 billion, excluding some intelligence amounts spent by the military.