President Obama has threatened to veto a Democratic-backed bill that would likely expand the number of lawmakers who can be briefed by the White House on covert national security operations.
In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, the White House Office of Management and Budget said that it does support many provisions in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 currently making its way through the House of Representatives. But it had "serious concerns with a number of provisions that would impede the smooth and efficient functioning" of the intelligence community.
In particular, the administration opposed a provision of the bill that would give Congress greater authority to decide which members are briefed on covert actions. The Intelligence Authorization Act proposed restructuring the "Gang of Eight" briefings, which are currently provided to the House and Senate leaders from both parties and the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence panels. The House legislation, backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a former intelligence chair herself), would give the intelligence committees, not the president, the authority to determine which members were briefed.
In its statement today, the White House argued that such a change would "run afoul of tradition by restricting an important established means by which the President protects the most sensitive intelligence activities that are carried out in the Nation's vital national security interests."
"If the final bill presented to the President contains this provision," read the critical passage of the statement, "the President's senior advisers would recommend a veto."
The language suggests that the President, at least at this juncture, is looking to bolster his standing with the intelligence community. But it could leave the White House facing a bevy of criticism from progressives. Already there are signs of a coming uproar.
Progressives have expressed strong opposition to the president's handling of other matters involving executive authority -- in particular, his willingness to construct an alternative system of indefinite detention and continue the use of the "state secrets" privilege to avoid turning over information to federal courts.
But the issue of congressional oversight of national security affairs is particularly sensitive. Democrats in Congress have repeatedly protested what they said was a deliberate attempt by former President George W. Bush to keep them in the dark about interrogation policy.
The provision to change the Gang of Eight structure is an attempt to remedy the situation by expanding the number of lawmakers who have access to national security intelligence. The administration argued that this could be a dangerous infringement on the intelligence community's ability to do its work. But it will likely be hard for progressives to see this as anything other than Obama maintaining a Bush-era system.
Excerpts from Wednesday's White House statement are below.
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STATEMENT OF ADMINISTRATION POLICY
H.R. 2701 - Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010
The Administration supports House passage of an Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2010 that would support the Intelligence Community (IC) and the Community's mission to conduct intelligence activities to protect the Nation. The Administration appreciates the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence's inclusion in H.R. 2701 of many provisions submitted by the Administration.
Although the Administration is pleased with the many favorable provisions in the bill, the Administration has serious concerns with a number of provisions that would impede the smooth and efficient functioning of the IC and that would raise a number of policy, management, legal, and constitutional concerns. The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to address these concerns, some of which are outlined below, in order to enhance the effectiveness and capabilities of the IC on behalf of the Nation.
While the Administration appreciates the funding authorized for critical intelligence programs as described in the classified schedule, it has serious concerns with certain funding reductions and other matters in the classified schedule that will be addressed separately by the Administration.
Report on Covert Actions (Section 321). The Administration strongly objects to section 321, which would replace the current "Gang of 8" notification procedures on covert activities. There is a long tradition spanning decades of comity between the branches regarding intelligence matters, and the Administration has emphasized the importance of providing timely and complete congressional notification, and using "Gang of 8" limitations only to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting the vital interests of the United States. Unfortunately, section 321 undermines this fundamental compact between the Congress and the President as embodied in Title V of the National Security Act 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. Section 321 would run afoul of tradition by restricting an important established means by which the President protects the most sensitive intelligence activities that are carried out in the Nation's vital national security interests. In addition, the section raises serious constitutional concerns by amending sections 501-503 of the National Security Act of 1947 in ways that would raise significant executive privilege concerns by purporting to require the disclosure of internal Executive branch legal advice and deliberations. Administrations of both political parties have long recognized the importance of protecting the confidentiality of the Executive Branch's legal advice and deliberations. If the final bill presented to the President contains this provision, the President's senior advisers would recommend a veto.
UPDATE: In a statement accompanying Leon Panetta's confirmation in February, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., suggested that the CIA Director had pledged to end the "Gang of Eight" briefing structure of the Bush years.
"In his meeting with me and at his confirmation hearing, [Panetta] provide assurances that he will put CIA activities squarely within the law and refocus the brave and dedicated professionals of the Agency on what they do best, and on what we need them for the most," said Feingold. "Congressman Panetta also committed to ending the Bush administration's practice of using 'Gang of Eight' briefings to evade its legal responsibility to brief the full congressional intelligence committees, thereby thwarting oversight."
The statement supports one component of what Pelosi is currently trying to do. But not all of it. Panetta did not, at least according to Feingold, endorse the idea that the Intelligence Committee should determine which lawmakers should be briefed.