Pelosi Faces Off With Obama on National Security

The Democrats do battle

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference of Capitol Hill.

In an unusual clash between Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama over Executive power, the liberal House Speaker is pushing to expand congressional oversight of the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the face of a veto threat from a White House that has moved steadily to the right on national security over the past 18 months. Pelosi wants the 2010 intelligence-authorization bill to require the agencies, when they launch any covert action, to inform all members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, not just the top committee members and party leaders, who are known as the Gang of Eight. She also wants the committees to be able to task the Government Accountability Office with auditing any intelligence program, a power it currently has only for classified Pentagon programs.

The Speaker has chosen a surprising moment to take a stand. She has rarely faced off against Obama over a veto threat, and with an election approaching, the last thing the Democrats want is a fight over a politically dangerous issue like national security. But Pelosi is blocking the bill even after Democratic allies, like Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, cut a deal with Republicans and the White House.

The Speaker's move is the product of ideology and history. As a Gang of Eight member in 2002, Pelosi was briefed on the Bush Administration's enhanced interrogation methods, but she claims the CIA did not disclose it was using waterboarding to extract information from terrorism suspects. (The CIA says it did.) Burned by the dispute, Pelosi last year charged that CIA officials "mislead us all the time." The White House believes that the fight contributed to a loss of support among independent voters for the Administration's approach to national security. In March, Obama threatened to veto the version of the intelligence-authorization bill that contained Pelosi's provisions, saying those provisions "undermine [the] fundamental compact between Congress and the President regarding the reporting of sensitive intelligence matters."

House and Senate Democrats spent three months negotiating a breakthrough pact with the White House and the GOP that would dramatically increase oversight powers without Pelosi's two provisions. But Pelosi refuses to move the bill to the floor without them.