Congress told President Obama in the new Intelligence Bill that if he didn’t describe covert actions to all the members of the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees, he at least needed to give them a “general description” of the activities. But in a signing statement the president issued today, the president said he was interpreting the notion of providing a “general description” to mean that he would notify them that there was something he wasn’t telling them.
Presidents issue “signing statements” sometimes to provide clarity about how they are interpreting legislation. On occasion, a signing statement indicates that the president is alerting Congress that he does not intend to follow its instructions. The president last year said he would issue signing statements, but suggested he would do so only sparingly. “In recent years, there has been considerable public discussion and criticism of the use of signing statements to raise constitutional objections to statutory provisions," he said in a memo at the beginning of his presidency. "There is no doubt that the practice of issuing such statements can be abused.
In this case, it’s all a little hazy. For more than a year, Congress and the Obama administration have been involved in a tug-of-war over the issue of whether the President needs to inform every member of both Intelligence Committees of covert actions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has strongly advocated as much disclosure to as many members as possible. Pushing what she calls “a robust oversight framework,” Pelosi is known for not exactly trusting what members of the intelligence community have told her. (She and CIA director Leon Panetta got into something of a public spat about this last year, as you may recall.)
Presidents in general aren’t all that keen about looping in members of what they see as a leak-prone Congress when it comes to the most sensitive operations the US conducts, and President Obama is not different. He has asserted the right to keep the pool of those informed narrow, confining such information to the “Gang of Eight” – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Congress pushed to expand the pool of those notified, the idea gave the president and his aides heartburn, and in the Summer of 2009, President Obama threatened to veto the bill.
This continued until last month, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and others finally convinced Pelosi that the administration was serious with its veto threat. Pelosi blinked, sources say, and accepted vague language allowing the president to opt out of the notification to the full committees as long as members were given the “general description” of the covert op.
That’s not an actual legislative term carrying with in specificity, so it made it easier for the president to interpret it as he sees fit.
And the president’s signing statement today makes clear that he’s interpreting the order to provide a “general description” of the classified information to mean notification to members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that they’re not being informed, but that the Gang of Eight is. This would be consistent with the law, White House officials say, since the information would only be withheld if there were “extraordinary circumstances affecting the vital interests of the United States.”
The president’s signing statement about H.R. 2701, the "Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010” states that the bill’s “requirement to provide a ‘general description’ of a covert action finding or notification provides sufficient flexibility to craft an appropriate description for the limited notification, based on the extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States and recognizing the President's authority to protect sensitive national security information.”