The White House is threatening to veto a key intelligence funding bill over what it considers to be a dangerous amount of oversight on covert agencies, according to published reports.
The 2010 Intelligence Budget has gone through a number of key changes over the past few months, with House Democrats and the Obama administration butting heads over a number of provisions. Key among them for the latest White House veto threat is a provision that would allow the Government Accountability Office to investigate intelligence agencies.
"Current law exempts intelligence and counterintelligence activities from GAO review, leaving oversight to the inspectors general at the various intelligence community agencies," Politico reported.
In a letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees, Office of Management and Budget chief Peter Orszag highlighted several areas of the bill that have intelligence officials worried, including the GAO oversight provision.
Orszag's letter also claims that proposed reforms to how Congress is notified of covert activities poses a "serious" threat that intelligence agencies object to.
Strangely, Orszag additionally called out an effort to re-investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks, which have since been blamed on the deceased government scientist Bruce Ivins. An unnamed Obama administration official told Bloomberg News that if the 2010 Intelligence Budget demands another look at the FBI's conclusions, the bill would be vetoed.
The FBI's probe has been heavily criticized by members of Obama's own party for "numerous" mistakes made by the FBI during the lengthy inquiry. Joseph Michael, a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also noted a key difference in "chemical fingerprints" between a flask linked to Ivins and the anthrax that was sent to government offices around the country.
At the FBI’s request, the National Academy of Sciences convened a 15-member panel to review the scientific soundness of the eight-year investigation. According to Elie Dolgin at Nature magazine, the FBI believes the scientific review of its own investigation to be “unprecedented,” but at least one member of Congress, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), thinks the case deserves another look, suggesting that the FBI's investigators themselves be investigated.
Ivins, 62, a biodefense researcher who spent years working on a better anthrax vaccine, overdosed on Tylenol and Codiene in 2008, after learning that the FBI was preparing to indict him on murder charges.
In its' present form, the 2010 Intelligence Budget would also significantly revise the "Gang of Eight" requirement, under which the president informs key members of Congress about ongoing covert activities.
As a reaction to the Bush administration's secrecy over its' massive electronic spying program, Congress last year approved the revisions that would allow House and Senate intelligence committees to write their own rules on who is told what. President Obama objected.
Other revisions House Democrats made to the bill, noted by The Washington Post earlier in March, include:
On Thursday, the House, as part of the fiscal 2010 intelligence authorization bill, approved a new plan that had been negotiated with the administration. Under it, the president would have to notify both committees that there has been a Gang of Eight disclosure and provide the other members with "general information on the content of the finding or notice." He would continue to be required to find it "essential to limit access . . . to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States."
Another added element would permit any one of the Gang of Eight to break his or her silence and register opposition to the proposed intelligence operation with the director of national intelligence. That action would have to take place within 48 hours. The DNI would then report in writing to the president his response to the objection. A copy would also go to the lawmaker.
A further modification is directly related to last year's controversy over what was disclosed in September 2002 about the waterboarding of the al-Qaeda terrorist known as Abu Zubaida to Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the ranking minority member of the House intelligence panel. Pelosi, now the speaker of the House, denied she was told of the torture-like process. Under the proposed law, the president would be required to record the date of a Gang of Eight briefing. After 30 days, the president would also be required to provide that information in writing to the committee of the lawmaker who was briefed.
President Obama issued his first veto threat against the bill in late February, reacting to a provision that would have mandated prison sentences for intelligence operatives that employ "cruel, inhuman and degrading" interrogation techniques. As one of his first orders of business, President Obama banned the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" that hallmarked the Bush years, requiring all interrogators to abide by guidelines in the Army Field Manual.
"The torture provision, introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., defined cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees and provided a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for using such techniques during an interrogation," the Associated Press noted. "It also said medical professionals who enable the use of improper treatment could face up to five years in prison."
In another reaction to Bush-era abuses of power, the bill would also prohibit private contractors from engaging in prisoner interrogations; a far cry from the prior administration, under which interrogators from U.S. IT firm CACI allegedly participated in torture through conspiracy, according to a lawsuit filed by four Iraqi men imprisoned in Abu Ghraib and later released without charge.