The Obama administration has failed to keep congressional intelligence officials in the loop on the investigation into the botched Times Square bombing, as required by law, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate intelligence committee charged in a letter this week.
“Having to fight over access to counterterrorism information is not productive and ultimately makes us less secure,” wrote Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and Vice Chairman Christopher S. “Kit” Bond in a letter to President Obama on Thursday.
The senators said the lack of information has “caused serious friction in the relationship of the committee, on both sides of the aisle, and the executive branch.”
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, the senators say U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly refused to provide relevant information on the probe into suspect Faisal Shahzad that would allow the committee to conduct oversight activities without hampering the ongoing investigation. Senate intelligence staffers were told that the Department of Justice had instructed the agencies not to convey information on the Times Square plot without its approval, they said.
But a spokesman for the Department of Justice said FBI, Homeland Security Department and counterterrorism officials have conducted several briefings on the incident with various congressional committees, including a May 11 briefing with the Senate Intelligence Committee. Spokesman Dean Boyd said that briefing “was highly classified and no other Senate committee has received a briefing like” that one.
Mr. Boyd also said the Justice Department has not told intelligence officials not to cooperate with lawmakers.
“The Justice Department did not order anyone in the intelligence community to withhold information from the Senate Intelligence Committee in connection with the attempted bombing,” Mr. Boyd said. “In fact, when the Justice Department was notified by certain intelligence agencies that they were planning to make calls to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Justice Department encouraged those agencies to do so.”
Congressional oversight of intelligence matters has long been a thorny issue in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, often playing out as tug-of-war between the administration and lawmakers who are tasked with holding it accountable.
In the case of the failed New York City bombing attempt, in which a Pakistani native tried to detonate an SUV in Times Square, the senators said the Obama administration has refused to provide the committee with FBI reports that are widely circulated within the intelligence community. The senators said the “great majority” of their information came through public press conferences and media accounts that sometimes continued inaccurate information.
“In the future, we hope and expect that an individual in the intelligence community will be designated to provide documents and regular, if not daily, briefings to the congressional intelligence committees on matters of high priority and interest so that we are able to discern between accurate and faulty reporting, and conduct our oversight duties,” the California Democrat and Missouri Republican concluded.
Sens. Feinstein and Bond said the only exception to the information blackout were phone calls from Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Mr. Boyd said the Justice Department is “aware that in cases like this there is often a tension between the need to keep the appropriate Hill committees informed and the need to protect the integrity of the investigation and prosecution. We take very seriously our obligation to prevent ongoing investigations and prosecutions from being compromised, but we also take seriously the obligations of the FBI and other intelligence agencies to keep appropriate committees fully and currently informed.”
The letter comes as the nation’s intelligence chief, Dennis Blair, resigned at the request of Mr. Obama after a rocky tenure as director of national intelligence that saw multiple turf battles with the CIA and incidents that raised questions about his day-to-day engagement on intelligence issues.
Earlier this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a damning report into the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt in which a young Nigerian man attempted to blow himself up on board a flight to Detroit. That report cited 14 specific points of failure that led to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarding the plane, including many on the part of the office of the DNI, which is supposed to bring together all U.S. intelligence.
Still, senior Republicans on the congressional intelligence committees have suggested that Mr. Blair’s ousting was a political move on the part of the administration, which they say ignores more fundamental, structural problems with the way the country gathers and analyzes intelligence. The White House has been mum on the resignation aside from publicly thanking Mr. Blair and noting the challenges facing anyone who serves in his position.
Dissatisfaction with the administration on oversight matters goes beyond the intelligence panels. Last month, Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, the top members of the Senate panel on homeland security, issued the administration its first congressional subpoenas over the shootings at Fort Hood. The senators accused the FBI and the Pentagon of ignoring repeated requests for information on the November shooting, in which an Army psychologist allegedly killed 13 people.