Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Classified intelligence bills often are unread

Classified intelligence bills often are unread
Secret process can discourage House debate

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff | August 6, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Nearly all members of the House of Representatives opted out of a chance to read this year's classified intelligence bill, and then voted on secret provisions they knew almost nothing about.

The bill, which passed by 327 to 96 in April, authorized the Bush administration's plans for fighting the war on terrorism. Many members say they faced an untenable choice: Either consent to a review process so secretive that they could never mention anything about it in House debates, under the threat of prosecution, or vote on classified provisions they knew nothing about.

Most chose to know nothing.

Only about a dozen House members scheduled time this year to read the classified sections of the intelligence bill, according to a House Intelligence Committee spokesman. The estimate dovetailed with a Globe survey sent to all members of the House, in which the vast majority of the respondents -- including eight out of 10 in the Massachusetts delegation -- said they typically don't read the classified parts of intelligence bills.

``It's a trap," said Representative Russ Carnahan, Democrat of Missouri, referring to the rule that members must refrain from discussing items in the bill. ``Either way, you're flying blind."

The failure to read the bill, however, calls into question the vows of many House members to provide greater oversight of intelligence in the wake of pre-9/11 failures, mistakes about Iraq's weapons capability, and revelations about spying on Americans.

Unclassified versions of authorization and spending bills for intelligence activities are made public, but are purposely vague and do not include specifics of covert operations or even the aggregate cost of the bill. Lawmakers can read the classified portions of intelligence authorization and appropriations bills but must go through a strict security process and cannot discuss any aspects of the classified version.

In addition, the administration sometimes offers verbal briefings to some or all members of Congress. But some lawmakers said they also passed on these sessions, since participants are prohibited from future discussions of the information -- even if it is subsequently revealed in the media, as was the case with the recent disclosure of efforts to monitor overseas financial transactions.

The rules make open debate on intelligence policy and funding nearly impossible, lawmakers say. While members of Congress said they understood the need for some secrecy, many complained that the administration stamped as ``classified" information that should be subject to public debate.

``We ought to be doing a better job of oversight, [but] if you're not going to be able to question it or challenge it, that makes it difficult," said Representative Walter Jones , a North Carolina Republican.

The failure of individual members to read the bills or attend briefings puts a far greater onus on the House and Senate intelligence committees' reviews of secret programs.

But committee members in both parties say the administration gives them too little information, and sometimes waits until a program is about to be leaked before sharing it with the panels.

``Is the administration giving us everything we want or need? Of course not," said Representative William ``Mac" Thornberry , Republican of Texas and chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee, echoing complaints by fellow lawmakers.

White House spokesman Tony Snow has defended the administration's information-sharing as ``appropriate," with a goal of informing key members of Congress while avoiding leaks of sensitive information in the war on terror. But even lawmakers who participate in the review process say they are never sure how much of the complete picture they are learning, since the administration alone decides what to keep classified.

Secret room

Aside from Intelligence Committee member John Tierney of Salem, who reviews the bill with other committee members, Representative Stephen Lynch of Boston is the only member of the all-Democratic Massachusetts House delegation who reads the classified portions of the intelligence bill, an exercise that requires lawmakers to go to a secret, secure room in the Capitol, turn in their Blackberrys and cellphones, and read the document without help from any staff members.

The process is so shrouded in secrecy that one member of Congress, not from Massachusetts, said he did not even know lawmakers were allowed to read the classified sections of the bills.

Lynch said he read the bill so he could discuss it privately with Tierney, who studies intelligence matters as a member of the panel. Both decided to vote against it. But Lynch could not share any classified information with the rest of the Bay State delegation.

``In the Eastern religion of Taoism they say that those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak. That sort of characterizes the situation we face," said Steven Aftergood , director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, which has lobbied to make more information public.

Shortly before the overseas banking surveillance program known as SWIFT was disclosed, Representative Barney Frank , the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, was offered a briefing on the program.

Frank, who represents Newton, said he was told that the program was about to be revealed in the media. But he was also told that if he sat in on the classified briefing, he could not discuss the SWIFT program, even after it became public, unless the administration confirmed it.

``I said, `I'm leaving, and if you want to tell me about something that's not in the paper, call me,' " Frank recalled.

Revealing classified secrets has long been a crime, punishable by expulsion from the House and criminal prosecution. But when Republicans took control of the House in 1995, new Speaker Newt Gingrich reinforced the mandate for secrecy by requiring all members to take a formal oath before receiving classified briefings.

Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, said he believes that he is the only member who has refused to sign the oath; therefore, he cannot read any classified intelligence bills or attend classified briefings.

``I'm not in second grade," McDermott said, explaining his decision.

Veteran lawmakers say they can't easily compare the quality of classified briefings by the Bush administration to those of previous administrations, since the nature and number of covert operations changes with world events. The inherent secrecy of the process also makes comparisons difficult, they said.

But many people familiar with the process say the Bush administration has been especially stingy with details.

For example, in 2001, Tierney requested a Government Accountability Office report on how well the Defense Department was addressing 50 specific problems with the Missile Defense System. But when GAO finished the report in 2003, the Defense Department classified the list of 50 problems, even though it had been revealed by former Defense Department official Philip Coyle in open testimony before Congress in 2000.

``The administration will classify something just because they find it embarrassing or if they don't want to talk about it. That's not what classification is for," Coyle said in an interview. A Defense Department spokesman said he did not believe anyone was still at the agency that could explain the Coyle report classification.

Some former congressional officials think the administration is deliberately avoiding scrutiny.

The White House has treated the House and Senate intelligence committees ``like mushrooms, which are kept in the dark and fed manure," argued Loch K. Johnson, a University of Georgia professor who was a senior Democratic staff member on both the House and Senate intelligence panels in the 1970s.

Operating largely in secret, the intelligence panels have a limited staff because of the security clearances involved. Further, committee members can't go to outside experts to vet policies or give advice, leaving members with no way to fact-check the administration's assertions, said Representative Rush Holt , a New Jersey Democrat who sits on the committee.

Holt defended the secrecy rule as ``a long tradition [with] a logical and legal basis" to protect national security. But behind the closed doors of Intelligence briefings, ``often, it's a game of 20 questions. They won't tell you what the taxpayer or citizen needs to know," Holt said.

Growing discord

The White House has said it is providing all the information it can, given security needs. Lawmakers ``should always be briefed when appropriate," Snow said , addressing public complaints from Republicans.

Thornberry, the oversight subcommittee chairman, defended his panel's efforts, saying that despite his frustrations with the administration's decisions to withhold information, the panel has done a good job of reviewing the overall structure of intelligence operations.

But congressional documents show growing discord among House leaders and members of the House Intelligence Committee, a panel that has historically prided itself on independent analysis and bipartisan negotiation.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California -- who, as a top congressional leader, is privy to regular briefings -- has chosen to reduce them from four to two per month because she found the content was not very valuable, her spokesman said.

Further, the spokesman said, Democratic and Republican leaders are no longer briefed together, raising questions about whether the two leaders are being told the same things.

The House committee's own reports reveal that the panel is deeply divided about how to get the Bush Administration to reveal more information. While the panel operated largely in unanimity up until 2004, a bitter partisanship began to infect the committee after some Democratic members tried to insert provisions into yearly intelligence bills to force the administration to provide more detailed intelligence.

The GOP majority placed in the record scathing critiques of Democratic amendments, unusual for a report that is traditionally crafted as a straightforward explanation of the decision-making behind the writing of the intelligence bill.

While several Republicans, including Intelligence Committee chairman Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, have recently criticized the administration for failing to provide adequate briefings, the committee reports show Republicans repeatedly batting down Democratic efforts to force the administration to provide information.

Time of war

In this year's intelligence bill, for example, Democrats offered an amendment to cut the budget of the National Security Agency by 20 percent unless the agency revealed how much money it was spending on its controversial wiretapping program. Republicans shot down the idea, branding it as ``completely irresponsible in a time of war."

In 2004, Democrats sought to cut funding to the CIA to force the agency to turn over documents related to treatment of detainees. Republicans rejected it as ``a petty action masquerading as a grand gesture." The same year, the GOP members rejected as ``heavy-handed and unnecessary" an amendment meant to force the Defense Department to detail the US government's relationship with controversial Iraqi opposition figure Ahmed Chalabi.

In what the Republican majority characterized as an effort to streamline the process, the House panel this year had just three hearings on the intelligence budget, down from between 10 and 14 hearings in previous years, according to the report.

Republicans on the panel said they were committed to conducting rigorous oversight, but would not necessarily agree to Democratic tactics to force the administration to reveal more.

``We're serious about what we're doing on oversight," but the panel is hostage to administration choices about what to reveal to Congress, Thornberry said. ``What if they don't want to tell us? Or they tell only one or three of us?" he added. ``We have to come down hard on them."
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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