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House Dems want to expand secret briefings

Proposal to strip the president's authority to severely limit congressional access to the top-secret briefings is a response to years of White House secrecy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrats in the House of Representatives are pushing for a big increase in the number of lawmakers who hear briefings on the most sensitive U.S. intelligence operations, from the current "Gang of Eight" to about 40.

The proposal to strip the president's authority to severely limit congressional access to the top-secret briefings is a response to years of White House secrecy.

The plan before the House Intelligence Committee would open the briefings to all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, a total of about 40 lawmakers, depending on shifting membership rosters.

The committee was considering the provision Thursday as it begins work on the fiscal year 2010 intelligence bill. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The move is an effort to wrest back oversight power ceded to former President George W. Bush during eight contentious years that saw U.S. intelligence agencies gain the use of wider surveillance authority and harsh interrogation tactics that many critics now call torture.

White House: No comment
It is not yet clear whether the Obama White House would oppose such redrawn limits on presidential authority, even by a Democratic Congress. White House officials would not comment on the plan, but other officials have expressed concerns about its impact.

The legislation drafted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat would end the president's authority to limit briefings on covert activities to a select group of congressional leaders known as "the Gang of Eight."

Under Reyes' proposal, all members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees would be briefed on those matters, said a congressional aide familiar with the proposal. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the proposed legislation.

To better maintain secrecy, Congress in 1991 granted the president the authority to limit briefings on covert activities to the eight lawmakers — the top members from both parties in both houses, plus the top two members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

The more lawmakers are briefed on secret intelligence, the more possibilities that the information will leak out.

But members of the intelligence committees from both parties say recent presidents have used Gang of Eight notification powers to avoid briefing the full intelligence committees about things they should have been told. The restricted briefings were used by the Bush administration to limit disclosure of warrantless wiretapping and harsh interrogation methods.

The Bush administration classified those programs as covert activities despite the doubts of some lawmakers that they fit that definition. Covert activities are considered to be actions taken by the U.S. government to affect foreign affairs that are so secret the United States would deny any role in them if discovered.

Briefing abuse?
National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month he would be against altering the law.

"I do not think it is prudent to alter the fundamental compact between Congress and the president regarding reporting of sensitive intelligence matters," he said in his written testimony.

The CIA declined to comment on the draft legislation, but CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that he believes the Bush administration abused the Gang of Eight notification process.

"Too often, critical issues were kept from this committee. Keeping this committee fully and currently informed is not optional — it's the law, and it is my solemn obligation to fulfill that requirement," Panetta said.

It was not clear whether the proposal has the backing of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic congressional leaders. Pelosi would not comment specifically on the draft legislation but she supports the intent, her spokesman said.