WASHINGTON – The House passed an intelligence bill Wednesday that would dramatically boost the money available to the new spy chief and require the Bush administration to consider blocking the pensions of government leakers.
Democrats made an unsuccessful, last-minute push to block the bill to protest that Republicans wouldn't allow adequate debate on the legality of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program.
The legislation was nevertheless approved 327-96. It provides budgeting guidelines for 16 U.S. spy agencies and the office of National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.
The bill's total cost is classified, but intelligence agencies' spending is believed to top $40 billion a year. Under the legislation, Negroponte's office would get nearly $1 billion.
Democrats expressed outrage that Republicans would not allow any of their five proposed amendments to be considered by the full House, including measures to expand congressional oversight of the NSA program and the intelligence on Iran.
California Rep. Jane Harman, the intelligence committee's top Democrat, supported the bill during the panel's deliberations. Yet she ultimately voted against it, saying intelligence officers aren't served by a bill "that does not protect the Constitution they are fighting to defend."
Republicans insisted on the legality of Bush's surveillance program. House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said allegations that the operations are abusive or unconstitutional are "absolutely outrageous."
He said he is committed to active oversight on both the NSA and Iran. Hoekstra also said the bill sends a signal that the vision of the intelligence overhaul law in late 2004 "was about building qualitative, better intelligence establishment — and not building a bureaucracy."
One of the Democratic amendments would have required Negroponte to submit to Congress information about Americans who have been the subject of surveillance by the National Security Agency. A second stated that all such surveillance would comply with the Constitution.
A third would have required Negroponte's office to provide the intelligence committees with classified updates on Iran's nuclear program every three months.
The bill provides more than $990 million in the primary account that funds Negroponte's office, which was created to organize the spy agencies under one leader. It is possible other dollars for his office are elsewhere in the bill. Last year, the House approved $446 million for his office, but the bill never became law.
The legislation would limit growth of Negroponte's staff until he explains new personnel needs to Congress. He requested 1,539 people for 2007.
In a bleak assessment, Harman said, "Our intelligence reorganization is in a slow startup, and the CIA is in a free fall," adding that employees with a combined 300 years of experience have left or been pushed out.
The bill would require Negroponte to study administrative punishments for government employees who leak classified information, including the revocation of their pensions.
The administration is trying to crack down on leaks, as seen by last week's firing of CIA officer Mary McCarthy for unauthorized contact with the media. The fate of her pension, after two decades in government, is not clear.
Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., offered a resolution that condemns media organizations that profit from disclosures and calls on the president to use his constitutional powers to act against leakers of classified information. The makes made no substantive or practical changes to current law.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, "I think it is obnoxious, but I don't think it will have much of an impact."
The bill also would:
— Expand funding and makes recommendations for intelligence analysis, billion-dollar satellite programs, counterterrorism and training for traditional spycraft. The details were classified.
— Allow the security officers protecting CIA and NSA officials to make arrests when they believe a felony has been committed. The Washington-based Project on Government Oversight raised concerns about potential abuses in domestic law enforcement.
Harman said such powers are comparable to those given to Secret Service and other organizations that protect government officials. Still, Harman said, she hoped more safeguards would be added to prevent possible abuses.
— Require Negroponte's office to provide the intelligence committees with an inventory of all the government's most sensitive operations, such as the NSA's warrantless surveillance program.
The provision, which the House also passed last year but was never made law, comes after Republicans and Democrats complained they were not briefed on the existence or details of the NSA program.
The bill is bill, H.R. 5020.