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Bill would boost congressional oversight of covert spy programs

Legislation backed by Democrats would require the president to brief all intelligence panel members on classified operations. Lawmakers had said Bush withheld information to reduce scrutiny.

June 21, 2009|Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — Criticized for failing to challenge the intelligence operations of the Bush administration, key lawmakers have endorsed a bill that would force the president to make fuller disclosure of covert spy programs.

The legislation approved by the House Intelligence Committee late Thursday would eliminate the president's ability to keep classified operations secret from any member of the panel, according to Democrats who described the provision.

The measure was included in a broad intelligence spending bill that also would expand funding for spy agencies and require the CIA to videotape its interrogations of terrorism suspects.

Democrats described the measure as an important effort to bolster congressional oversight of intelligence activities. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the intelligence panel, said the bill would "have wide-ranging consequences for the way the committee conducts its business." But Republicans voted against the measure.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the panel, said he favored a proposal last year that would have allowed the president to restrict briefings on sensitive topics with the permission of the top Democrat and Republican on the committee.

The debate centers on the controversial practice of restricting intelligence briefings to the "Gang of Eight," a group that includes the party leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the ranking Democrat and Republican on each intelligence committee.

The language adopted by the House committee Thursday would strike a provision in the nation's main intelligence statute that allows restricted briefings.

Instead, the president would be obligated to inform all 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as their 22 counterparts in the House.

The bill calls for the committee to draft procedures that would allow restricted briefings under special circumstances.

"If this provision becomes law, Gang of Eight briefings will either be eliminated or very much restricted," said a Democratic congressional aide familiar with the legislation. The measure has yet to be considered by the full House.

Lawmakers complained bitterly that the Bush administration routinely withheld information from members as a way of reducing their ability to scrutinize or challenge controversial programs, including CIA interrogations and electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Even so, records indicate that lawmakers who were informed of controversial operations raised few objections. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was accused of hypocrisy by Republicans this year for criticizing the CIA's interrogation methods, even though she appears to have done little to intervene after she was briefed on aspects of the program in 2002.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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