WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday passed legislation governing next year's intelligence budget that demands lawmakers be given greater access to the nation's most closely held secrets.
The bill is the latest attempt by Democrats, struggling to challenge Bush on major national security issues, to step up their role in overseeing an intelligence program they say has gone astray. Lawmakers complain that the Bush administration left most of them out of the loop on highly classified -- and controversial -- matters, including creation and destruction of CIA interrogation tapes and Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.
The bill would block two-thirds of the federal covert operations budget until each member of the congressional intelligence committees is briefed on all secret operations under way. Panel members also would be granted access to any other details necessary to assess the value of intelligence operations.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill because it says it would go too far and infringe upon the president's right to protect intelligence. In a statement Wednesday, the administration said the bill could expose information previously protected under executive privilege, including pre-decision legal opinions, risk assessments and cost estimates.
The legislation "would undermine long-standing arrangements between Congress and the president regarding reporting of sensitive intelligence matters," the statement said.
The Senate still has to take up its version of the bill before a final measure can be sent to the president to sign. The Senate bill also is expected to provoke a veto threat because of a provision that would limit interrogation tactics used by the CIA.
Before final passage, the House adopted by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., that would require the administration to provide Congress an update on its October 2007 national intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear program.
It also agreed, 249-180, to an amendment by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would prohibit any part of the intelligence budget from being used to discourage the use of such phrases as "jihadist" or "Islamo-fascism" to describe terrorist activities.
Many experts contend the use of these terms can cause religious offense and are frequently applied incorrectly. Accordingly, several federal agencies, including the State Department and National Counterterrorism Center, have asked their employees not to use the terms.
"Let's not give the radical jihadist a victory here by imposing a speech code on America's intelligence community," Hoekstra said.
Other provisions in the House bill that provoked a veto threat include a prohibition on the use of contractors to interrogate detainees and a demand that the CIA inspector general audit all covert operations every three years. The administration contends that the required audits would "interfere with the independent judgment" of the agency.
The bill authorizes intelligence spending for the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. The amount in the intelligence budget is classified.
The Senate measure is similar to the House bill. But unlike the House version, the Senate's legislation includes a provision by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would limit the CIA and FBI to interrogation tactics listed in the publicly available Army Field Manual on Interrogation.
The White House is expected to block the final bill if it includes such a restriction.
Earlier this year, Bush vetoed the 2008 intelligence authorization bill because it included the same curbs on questioning techniques. Lacking the two-thirds majority needed, Democrats were unable to override the veto and Congress did not revisit the bill.
The latest intelligence bills were drafted in the midst of a bitter debate on federal surveillance rules and the president's warrantless wiretapping program initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Earlier this month, Congress bowed to Bush's demands and sent him legislation that would shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits complaining that the companies helped the government spy on Americans.