Saying It Will Put Lives At Risk, White House Threatens to Veto Intelligence Bill Over Transparency and Oversight Issues

By Matt Loffman

Mar 16, 2010 1:50pm

In letters to the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees the White House threatened to veto the Intelligence Authorization bill because its demands for transparency and oversight would, in some cases, put American lives at risk, in the view of the Obama administration.

President Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag, wrote Monday to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., the chair and ranking Republican of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Reps. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chair and ranking Republican, respectively, of the House Intelligence Committee, that the House and Senate Intelligence Authorization bills “and their classified annexes still contain several provisions of serious concern to the Intelligence Committee (IC). Three categories of provisions are so serious that the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill if they are included in the version presented for his signature: the Congressional notification provisions, GAO provisions, and provisions regarding the amounts authorized for the National Intelligence Program.”

Congress is proposing that interrogations of detainees or prisoners in CIA custody be videotaped. The Obama administration says that "conditions as they exist in real-time may not allow for the installation and assembly of video equipment, particularly if hostile forces are active at or near the site of the interrogation.” The administration suggests that some interrogations might be conducted when the detainee is in the hands of a foreign intelligence services or “under austere conditions under which recording is not feasible.”

Wrote Orszag: “this provision has the potential to damage significantly our counterterrorism capabilities and therefore our ability to keep the American people safe.” He says it “could result in the loss of important intelligence that could help disrupt planned terrorist operations and save lives.”

Another section of the bill the Obama administration opposes would require the White House to provide information about covert activities and the "legal authority" under which an intelligence activity is being conducted not merely to the "Gang of Eight" – the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Democratic and Republican Leaders, and the top Democrat and top Republican in both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees – but to the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

"This new requirement would undermine the President's authority and responsibility to protect sensitive national security information," Orszag wrote.

Congress is also trying to bring the intelligence communities under the oversight of the  Government Accountability Office, which the administration opposes.

The president also objects to requiring that three administration positions be confirmed by the Senate: the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the director of the National Security Agency, and the newly-created Intelligence Community Inspector General. The Obama administration argues that were those positions to becomes ones that require Senate confirmation, “critical national security positions would likely remain unfilled for significant periods of time.

In addition, the Intelligence Authorization bill would commission an agency inspector general to investigate the anthrax attacks, which the FBI has concluded were planned and committed by the late Dr. Bruce Ivins, acting alone.

As Salon's Glenn Greenwald has covered extensively, there are many members of Congress who question the FBI’s conclusion, including members of congress such as the former head of the State Department’s Nuclear and Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces Rep. Rush Holt, D-NJ, from whose district the letters were sent; and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vermont, whose office was targeted.

Moreover, having reported that scientists don’t think the “deadly bacterial spores mailed to victims in the US anthrax attacks” had  the same chemical “fingerprint” as those bacteria in the flask linked to Ivins, the science journal Nature recently wrote that the case was not closed. Editorial writers from the Washington Post and New York Times are similarly unconvinced.

But even with all that skepticism, the Obama administration says it is “greatly concerned about the appearance and precedent involved when Congress commissions an agency Inspector General to replicate a criminal investigation. The anthrax investigation was one of the most thorough ever undertaken by the FBI.”

Last July, President Obama threatened to veto the Intelligence Authorization Act, asserting that Congress was unconstitutionally pursuing information about executive branch deliberations. Since then the bill was changed to alleviate administration concerns, but apparently not enough for President Obama.

- jpt

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