The Obama administration and Capitol Hill are engaged in a major turf battle as lawmakers face fresh resistance from the White House over a push to increase their oversight of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Both houses of Congress have passed bills that would force officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies to notify a broader group of lawmakers of key operations and give congressional investigators greater latitude to examine the intelligence community. But as House and Senate negotiations try to hammer out a final agreement, the White House - which itself has had a turbulent relationship with the intelligence community - this week said either of those moves could draw a presidential veto.
Top Democrats said the negotiations are at a delicate state and that the heart of the dispute is the balance of power between the executive and the legislature over sensitive intelligence policies and operations.
“There have been tussles between Congress and the White House on who gets notified of what ever since at least the congressional intelligence committees were created and probably longer than that,” said Rep. William M. “Mac” Thornberry, Texas Republican and a member of the House panel.
“The hope is to have a clearer line about what is and what is not briefed, and then have each branch take responsibility for the roles that are in that branch,” Mr. Thornberry said.
In a sharply worded letter to the negotiators obtained by The Washington Times, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag said the White House is trying to give Congress access while letting the intelligence community do its work effectively.
He said the current provisions “undermine this fundamental compact between the Congress and the president regarding the reporting of sensitive intelligence matters … an arrangement that for decades has balanced congressional oversight responsibilities with the president’s responsibility to protect sensitive national security information.”
The question of oversight of the intelligence community has proved a touchy subject for Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue since Mr. Obama’s election.
Mr. Obama has had tense relations with the CIA over the scope of efforts to probe the agency’s role in the George W. Bush administration’s war on terrorism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year said bluntly that CIA officials “mislead [Congress] all the time,” and there has been criticism in Congress of intelligence failures in the run-up to the failed bombing attempt on Christmas Day of an airliner over Detroit.
The House and Senate bills would overhaul the current system of notification, under which the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees - along with party leadership in both chambers - are kept apprised of covert intelligence activities. Though different, both the House and Senate bills require that all members be informed of either the “main features” or “general information” of activity that the so-called “Gang of Eight” is briefed about.
The bills would both also give Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, jurisdiction over intelligence matters to conduct oversight investigations. The tug of war has produced some strange bedfellows - several Republicans are backing the Obama administration’s opposition to the GAO provisions, for example, while House and Senate Democrats are at loggerheads with the Democratic president.
While the debate over congressional notification on intelligence matters is nothing new, lawmakers say the failure to come up with more detailed guidelines risks another high-profile flap like the clash when Mrs. Pelosi last spring accused the CIA of lying to her in briefings about the use of waterboarding on terrorism-suspect detainees.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House intelligence panel, has reservations about increasing the burden on the administration to expand the number of members getting briefings on sensitive matters.
“At certain times, the use of the ‘Gang of Eight’ has been totally appropriate,” he said. “I can’t imagine not having it.”
The Democratic chairmen of the intelligence panels have not said how they plan to work out disagreements with the administration. The office of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes of Texas did not return a message seeking comment, while Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein offered little detail.
“I believe we can pass this intelligence authorization bill. There has not been one for five years, and it’s important that this bill pass,” the California Democrat said.
The executive-legislative fight over intelligence is both pointed and, at times, petty - something Mr. Hoekstra said he experienced during a recent trip to Yemen, when the administration called ahead and told the U.S. ambassador there not to give him a briefing.
“At least under the Bush administration, when I asked for briefings, I got them,” he said. “This is the first time where I’ve had an administration proactively go out and try to scuttle a briefing and effectively do it.”
The final House bill keeps the current information-sharing structure, but requires that all members be given “general information” regarding a Gang of Eight notification. It also demands that the administration provide the legal authority under which it is conducting a given intelligence activity.
The Senate version of the bill also includes the legal explanation provision and requires the administration to brief the entire committee on the “main features” of an activity shared through a Gang of Eight briefing.