WASHINGTON -- After months of argument over lawmakers' access to briefings on top-secret intelligence, Congress on Wednesday sent the first intelligence authorization bill since 2004 to President Barack Obama with language meant to strengthen oversight of sensitive spy operations.
The Bush administration and its top intelligence officials were faulted for not fully briefing or notifying Congress on highly classified programs such as a secret plan to target terrorist leaders. CIA Director Leon Panetta killed that program last year.
The authorization bill the House passed 244-181 -- the Senate had approved it in earlier in the week -- is a compromise, hewing to White House insistence that only eight key congressional leaders attend briefings on the nation's most secretive programs.
It also seeks to satisfy lawmakers' desire for more information by ensuring that all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees will receive a "general description" regarding the intelligence finding or notification. However, the bill gives the White House leeway in deciding what to tell the committee members in its notification.
Robert Litt, the top attorney in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in a letter Monday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the new language in the bill provides "sufficient flexibility to craft a description that the president deems appropriate." Litt wrote that "extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States" could allow Congress to be provided with "limited notification."
Based on their interpretation of the bill, the president's senior advisers will recommend he sign it, Litt wrote.
The bill also says that cases in which the president has ordered limited congressional access, the full congressional intelligence committees must be provided broader access to the classified information within six months or else be given a statement of reasons justifying the limited access.
Those allowed to attend the briefings -- they are called the Gang of Eight -- are the leaders of both parties in the Senate, the House and Intelligence committee chairs and the ranking committee members from both parties.
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praised the bill's passage, saying the lack of a bill for the past six years impeded and weakened congressional oversight of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies.
"The bill not only reverses that trend but strengthens our oversight by strengthening the director of national intelligence's authority and flexibility, improving and broadening notification requirements by administration officials to the full intelligence committees rather than just the 'Gang of Eight' on covert activity and increasing GAO investigative authority."
"We can do more to protect Americans from attack, and passing the intelligence authorization bill and improving congressional oversight over our spy agencies is an important first step," said Sen. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Obama had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill pushed by House Democrats that would have opened briefings to all members of the intelligence committees, which would be about 40 lawmakers, depending on shifting membership rosters.
Other key changes include the president keeping a record of when members of Congress are told about a finding and providing the "legal basis under which the intelligence activity is being or was conducted."