The Obama administration has threatened to veto the funding bill for US intelligence agencies because the House included a provision that would increase the number of members who receive briefings on highly secretive covert operations.
The provision, section 321 of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2010, would require intelligence agencies to brief all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees virtually every sensitive classified project, including "special access programs" that have traditionally been orally briefed to the "Gang of 8," the chairs ranking members of the intel committees, the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate.
The same provision allows Congress, not the administration, to restrict the briefings in extraordinary circumstances.
This seemingly small change to the law is what's provoked the veto threat. The Obama administration, like all previous administrations of the modern era, believe that the president, and only the president, has the power to determine what constitutes national security information and, even more vitally, what safeguards ought to be in place to protect the information.
Section 321 chips away at that power and simultaneously expands the scope of the briefings that the administration would be required to give.
The Gang of 8 process is much derided by critics who argue that intelligence oversight cannot be effective unless full oversight committees are fully briefed, and unless the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches over control of classified information shifts in Congress's favor.
"There is a long tradition spanning decades of comity between the branches regarding intelligence matters, and the Administration has emphasized the importance of providing timely and complete congressional notification, and using "Gang of 8" limitations only to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting the vital interests of the United States," the administration writes. "Unfortunately, section 321 undermines this fundamental compact between the Congress and the President as embodied in Title V of the National Security Act regarding the reporting of sensitive intelligence matters - an arrangement that for decades has balanced congressional oversight responsibilities with the President's responsibility to protect sensitive national security information. Section 321 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 Nation's vital national security interests."
The administration also objects to language that would subject internal executive branch legal deliberations over intelligence policy to the congressional oversight process.
Elsewhere in the statement, the administration chides Congress for its proposal to establish an inspector general with oversight responsibilities for the entire intelligence community. Why? It might constraint the president's "constitutional authority to review and, if appropriate, control disclosure of certain classified information."
The theme of this memo, and of the administration's defense of the state secrets doctrine, is that President Obama believes that the executive branch, and only the executive branch, controls the release of classified information. The bright line they've drawn here is not a-historical, but given recent history, it will provoke a clash with Congress, and, down the line, trigger a major Supreme Court case.
Congressional sources say that the White House veto threat will be sufficient to persuade House Democrats to remove the provision from the bill, which was scheduled to be debated tomorrow.