Pelosi Faces Off with Obama on CIA Oversight

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A military guard stands next to a shackle used to tie detainees to a sofa while they watch DVDs in the maximum-security area of Guantánamo on Oct. 27, 2009

Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama are unlikely political foes, but the House Speaker is in the middle of an ugly fight with the President — as well as the CIA and powerful House and Senate Democrats and Republicans — about Congress's watchdog powers over the U.S. intelligence services.

Bucking a veto threat by Obama and overruling a deal among the White House, Republicans and two Democratic committee chairmen, Pelosi is pushing to dramatically expand congressional oversight of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. At issue is Congress's ability to monitor the intelligence programs deemed most sensitive and closely held by the Executive Branch. And the battle is turning into the biggest confrontation yet over Executive power between the liberal House Speaker and a White House that has moved steadily to the center on national security matters.

Pelosi wants the CIA and other intelligence agencies to inform all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees when they launch any covert action or other controversial program, not restricting that information to the chairmen and ranking opposition members and party leaders, or "Gang of Eight," as required by current law. She also wants the congressional intelligence committees to have the power to task the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with auditing any intelligence program, Democratic aides say, a power the GAO has for classified Pentagon programs but not for the intelligence agencies. "The Speaker has made it very clear that she wants disclosure for the full membership of the intelligence committees, not just the ranking members," says Pelosi's press secretary, Brendan Daly.

The fight is unusual because Pelosi has rarely faced off against Obama over a veto threat. Moreover, she has chosen an election year in which to do battle on national security, an issue on which Democrats have been increasingly vulnerable since Obama took office. Most surprising of all, Pelosi is going to the mat after months of work by her Democratic allies to cut a deal with Republicans and the White House. "It's striking that her objections stand even though the committee leadership is satisfied," says Steven Aftergood, an expert in government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "It indicates that it is something that she feels strongly about. She was burned by the previous Administration, and seems determined to prevent any sort of recurrence of that treatment."

As the highest-ranking Democrat in the House in 2002, Pelosi was one of the eight members of Congress who were briefed on the Bush Administration's "enhanced interrogation" methods. She has since claimed that the CIA did not disclose that it was using waterboarding, which the U.S. previously viewed as a form of torture and was therefore illegal. The CIA claims that it did brief Pelosi, and last year she charged that "the CIA was misleading the Congress" about the program and that "they mislead us all the time." Those comments led to an open confrontation between Pelosi and the CIA, which the White House believes has contributed to the loss of support among independent voters for the Administration's approach to national security.

When the House and Senate took up the fiscal year 2010 intelligence authorization bill in March this year, it contained the expanded notification and GAO provisions sought by Pelosi. The White House threatened to veto the bill. "The Administration strongly objects to these provisions," White House Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag wrote to Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein on March 15, 2010. "The provisions ... undermine [the] fundamental compact between Congress and the President 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."

That exchange prompted three months of negotiation between the Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees, their Republican counterparts and the White House, resulting in a far-reaching compromise bill. According to a statement released by Feinstein on Thursday afternoon, the committees' compromise bill would require all intelligence agency heads to certify every year that they have notified Congress fully of all covert actions. It would require written confirmation of covert actions authorized by the President and memoranda of notification of those actions and justification for not briefing the full membership of the two intel committees. The compromise bill would also require intelligence agencies to explain the legal basis for their activities in writing to the committees, something the Bush and Obama administrations have resisted in part or whole. "It's fundamental to national security that it be passed," Feinstein said.

But Democratic staffers say Pelosi will not move the bill to the floor unless it contains a provision doing away with the Gang of Eight notification procedure as well as one empowering the intelligence committees to authorize the GAO to audit intelligence programs. "She wants the whole intelligence committee notified for both covert action and other times [of which only] the chair and ranking members would be notified [under the compromise bill]," says a Democratic aide familiar with the fight. "In addition, and separate from that, she wants the GAO provision included."

The White House and the CIA declined to comment on the fight, but some Democrats on the Hill are incredulous that Pelosi has dug in her heels. They say the committees have spent months reaching a deal that is acceptable to Republicans and the intelligence community and that blocking the deal threatens not just the historic expansion of oversight they have negotiated but also could put back in play a political issue that is dangerous to Democrats ahead of the elections this fall. But Pelosi aides insist that the standoff is a matter of principle. "It's not a mystery at all," says spokesman Daly. "She wants more notification."

Pelosi is negotiating with the White House over a possible compromise. Although she has pushed hardest to open notification beyond the Gang of Eight, advocates for diminished government secrecy say that GAO oversight is more consequential. As it stands, there is limited oversight of waste in multimillion-dollar intelligence-community programs, and accusations of "black-budget pork" — pet projects that Representatives hide from view in the secret intelligence budgets — go largely uninvestigated. "There has never been a compromise of classified information out of GAO, and they review classified programs at the Pentagon all the time," says Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

Congress hasn't passed an intelligence authorization bill in five years, in part because of the fight over disclosure. "If we're not going to have an intelligence authorization bill," says Aftergood, "much of the committees' reason for existence goes away: this is the primary vehicle for shaping intelligence policy, and without it the committees are insignificant."