Intel Briefings to Congress: Obama's Team Was Skeptical (Early On)

In the final moments of a panel on intelligence reform this morning, Michael Hayden, who served as director of the CIA for a short of time at the beginning of President Obama's first term, disclosed that he asked the White House -- the Obama White House -- about whether to brief Congress about a certain very sensitive intelligence matter. And it was the decided preference of the Obama White House that the matter not be briefed to the intel committees. 

"I'd seen this dance before." Hayden would not disclose what the matters was, but he said he was fairly certain that Congress had ultimately been briefed by the CIA on the policy or program in question. (Hayden also disputed my contention that the National Security Agency domestic surveillance program he stood up in late 2002 was declared illegal as a matter of precedent last week by Judge Vaughn Walker. Before we could have that debate, the next panel began.)

Hayden had earlier told a panel of intelligence experts and journalists convened by the Bipartisan Policy Council this morning that it was always his preference that Congress be briefed widely and comprehensively on secret programs. Borrowing a metaphor from the Air Force, he said, "If you want them to come to the crash, you'd better put them on the manifest." On the same panel, Rep. Jane Harman quoted her colleague Pete Hoekstra, who said that getting briefed by agencies was like playing 20 questions. "If you don't know what questions to ask, then you won't get the question answered."

The Obama administration has carved out a position on national security information that aligns it, policy-wise, with its predecessors. Obama wants to control what constitutes national security information and argues that only the executive branch can decide how to protect that information -- including who gets briefed. That's one reason the administration opposed Democratic efforts to expand the number of members of Congress who receive briefings on certain types of intelligence. Administration officials have said that their posture differs from that of the Bush administration because Obama intends to abide by court rulings regarding the status of this information balance, and because it is the administration's preference to improve and strengthen congressional oversight, rather than to undermine it.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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