House Democrats, White House at odds over CIA briefings

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — House Democrats were working Thursday to avert a showdown with President Barack Obama and the CIA over whom in Congress should receive sensitive information on the agency's covert activities.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, was negotiating with Obama administration officials over a measure that would expand the number of lawmakers who receive briefings on CIA activities from the eight leading members of Congress to all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Obama vowed Wednesday to veto the pending Intelligence Authorization Bill if it contains language expanding the briefings beyond the so-called Gang of Eight — the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses of Congress and heads and ranking members of the two intelligence committees. The bill was originally scheduled to be voted on Thursday night, though it was not clear that vote would take place.

"The chairman (Reyes) is talking to them about how we come to terms," Pelosi told reporters.

The White House said giving all intelligence committee members access to the CIA's covert dealings "would run afoul of tradition by restricting an important established means by which the president protects the most sensitive intelligence activities that are carried out in the national security interests."

The House's drive to change the briefing rules stems from complaints from lawmakers of both parties that they hadn't received all the information they should have from President George W. Bush's administration.

Complaints about incomplete or misleading intelligence information reached a boiling point in May, when Pelosi said that the CIA didn't tell her in a 2002 briefing that it had used waterboarding against a terrorism suspect.

House intelligence committee Democrats created a new flap Wednesday when they accused the CIA of deliberately misleading or lying to Congress for the last eight years, in essence bolstering Pelosi's claim.

They based their accusations, outlined in letters released this week, on a closed-door briefing that CIA Director Leon Panetta gave to the committee on June 24.

"Top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all members of Congress, and misled members for a number of years from 2001 to this week," Democratic committee members wrote to Panetta on June 26, summarizing the director's briefing. "This is similar to other deceptions of which we are aware from other recent periods."

CIA officials, in a written statement Thursday, vigorously defended the agency.

"This agency and this director believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed. Director Panetta's actions back that up," CIA spokesman George Little said.

Congressional Republican leaders also rejected the Democrats' accusations.

"I do not believe that the CIA lied to Congress," House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters. "I'm still waiting for Speaker Pelosi to either put up the facts or retract her statement and apologize."

But one Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a former intelligence committee member, called on FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate "whether the CIA director's communications to members of Congress and statements have been fully accurate."

"The whole question of lying to Congress is serious enough that it should always be investigated and taken seriously," Issa said. "We cannot have a cloud of suspicion over the Congress that impacts the credibility of the intelligence information we receive. We rely on truthfulness and candor behind those closed-door briefings."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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