House Democrats on Thursday gave in to Obama administration secrecy demands and softened legislation that would have required broader notification of Congress about secret intelligence operations — part of the first intelligence bill likely to become law in six years.
The deal means the president can continue to restrict briefings about these programs to just a handful of lawmakers, known as the “Gang of Eight” — chairman and ranking members of House and Senate oversight committees and senior leaders.
The bill also includes provisions that would allow declassification of the total annual U.S. intelligence budget, and would require reports to Congress about cost overruns in major secret acquisition programs.
The authorization bill would give the director of national intelligence powers to launch reviews into errors or misconduct by intelligence officials, and could open the door to a new role for intelligence oversight by congressional investigators in Government Accountability Office.
It also would make the job of inspector general for the director of national intelligence (DNI) a Senate-confirmed post with broad statutory powers.
The bill was similar to a Senate version and passed the House by a 244-181 vote Wednesday night. It will be sent to the White House, where officials say the president will sign it now that the expanded notification and other oversight provisions were removed. If signed, it will be first intelligence authorization bill to become law since 2004.
Previous bills were caught up in disputes about notification provisions or other controversial measures, including those related to the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. Congress passed a bill in 2008, but President Bush vetoed it.
The breakthrough on the bill comes after months of debate over provisions advanced by some House Democrats to broaden the notifications given to congressional intelligence committees about clandestine activities.
Such programs include some of the most secret operations, like the CIA prisons overseas.
The procedure came into the spotlight this year after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, claimed CIA officials misled her during a Gang of Eight briefing about secret interrogation procedures.
Mrs. Pelosi lobbied in favor of the longtime efforts by some Democrats to force intelligence agencies to provide briefings to more congressional officials about top-secret programs, provoking a standoff with both parties on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and with the administration.
Mrs. Pelosi “would not allow the bill to move ahead” without those provisions, said one senior Senate aide.
But “all of sudden,” the aide said, Mrs. Pelosi relented after agreeing to a “cosmetic fix” on the notification issue.
The compromise would allow the president to restrict briefings on covert action notification to the Gang of Eight, but would require him to provide a statement of the reasons for the restrictions; and to provide “a general description” of the program to other committee members.
Every 180 days, officials would review the decision to restrict the briefings and issue a new statement of reasons to the Gang of Eight if the restrictions are to continue.
“The White House did not want the president’s hands tied,” the staffer said, “We don’t think this ties them.”
The bill also would open the door to making public the total amount of U.S. intelligence spending, the so-called top line, at both ends of the budget process — the amount requested by the president and the amount eventually appropriated by Congress. But the bill would allow the president to keep either or both numbers secret if he deems it in the national interest.
Private intelligence analysts have estimated annual spending at between $46 billion and $49 billion.
In a series of provisions based on the Nunn-McCurdy acquisition reforms Congress imposed on the Pentagon in 1982, the bill would require quarterly reports to the DNI from the managers of all acquisitions programs costing more than $500 million.
In the event those reports show “significant” cost growth — 15 percent or more — program managers would have to report to lawmakers. If costs grow 25 percent or more, the program has to be reassessed and will be terminated unless the DNI certifies it is still worthwhile.
In another provision amended to head off a threatened veto, the DNI would be required to issue a directive setting out the role of the Government Accountability Office in the intelligence community, which in the past has been blocked from intelligence-related inquiries.
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