Holding Up Intelligence Reform, Clapping to Administration Demands

So after a last minute dance with three Republican holds, James Clapper is poised to be confirmed as Director of National Intelligence. As I noted before, this means someone most Senators either have or have had concerns about will be approved by big numbers to head our intelligence community.

But the more important story about this nomination seems to be about holds and reform.

As I noted before, John McCain briefly put a hold on Clapper’s nomination. As Marc Ambinder explains, he did so as leverage to demand information on a satellite program over which Congress and the Administration has clashed.

The Director of National Intelligence’s office has sent Sen. John McCain’s office its top secret report on the development of two “tier-two” electro-optical satellites that Congress doesn’t want funded but the intelligence establishment believes it desperately needs. Neither McCain’s office, the White House, nor the DNI would confirm that McCain was seeking information about the highly classified development program, nor would they say why it took so long to send McCain the report he requested.

In parallel with McCain’s hold, Kit Bond and Tom Coburn–who, as Senate Intelligence Committee members, both voted for Clapper’s nomination in the Committee–put a hold on Clapper’s nomination as leverage to get a report on threat assessments of people at Gitmo.

The Cable caught up with Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, who said that two other senators were holding up the nomination, committee ranking Republican Kit Bond, R-MO, and Tom Coburn, R-OK. The senators wanted ODNI to deliver an overdue threat assessment on the prisoners being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.


Bond told The Cable Tuesday that he is getting the information he desires.

“Today I talked to General Clapper and I’m pleased the intelligence community is now working to provide the documents and access that I — and other members — have been seeking and that they are required by law to share with lawmakers,” he said.

Coburn also denied he has a formal “hold” on Clapper but said he was worried about the Guantánamo threat assessment.

“I think it’s important that we look at the vast number of people that have been released under the Bush administration and the Obama administration from Guantánamo who are now trying to kill American soldiers,” he said. “And I think that information is due and the intelligence committee ought to be getting it. So I am trying to do whatever I can to make good decisions.”

So prepare for James Clapper to take over at DNI!

And with his confirmation, expect Congress to lose the leverage it had to force the Administration to accept some real intelligence reform, reform that would, among other things, require Presidential Administrations to share information required by Congress more readily and widely.

So note the irony. The Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, had to put a hold on this urgent nomination to get information that he doesn’t get (Ambinder says the Gang of Eight gets briefed on it, but not SASC; I think it more likely that a few members of the Senate Appropriations Committee get briefed on it, but neither the Gang of Eight nor the leadership of SASC). And the Ranking Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kit Bond (as well as Tom Coburn, who never met a hold he didn’t like), had to put a hold on this urgent nomination to get information he hadn’t get but was entitled to by law.

And yet no one finds this state of affairs urgent enough to make real changes in intelligence oversight such that individual Senators don’t have to find similar holds with which to gain enough leverage to get the information they need to do their job?

Nancy Pelosi: How Dare the Administration Say they Would Veto Intelligence Reform?

In a an interview with me on intelligence reform on Saturday, Speaker Pelosi suggested that the White House should either accept real reform of the oversight function–including some version of House amendments on GAO review of intelligence programs and expanded intelligence briefing beyond the Gang of Four–or accept full responsibility if anything goes wrong with its intelligence programs, because the intelligence committee (or at least the House intelligence committee) cannot exercise effective oversight under the current rules.

Recent coverage on the intelligence reform routinely points out that Speaker Pelosi refuses to budge on these two issues. But it rarely explains why Pelosi is so adamant about these reforms. In our interview, Pelosi (and Jan Schakowsky, who was in the room) laid out some of the reasons: Pelosi discussed the times when Gang of Four members were briefed but could not tell others (including an oblique discussion of the games CIA played with their briefings of her on torture). Schakowsky reminded Pelosi that Congress did not know the intelligence “justifying” the Iraq War. The Speaker also described a time when expanding numbers of House staffers were read into a topic only briefed to the Gang of Four, even while the members of the committee were not briefed. Pelosi mentioned the investigation Schakowsky’s subcommittee did, which concluded that CIA had failed to inform the Intelligence Committee of five major incidents. Schakowsky described the resource and expertise limitations on the committee and explained how GAO could alleviate that. Pelosi described an unevenness between the way the White House treats non-compartmented intelligence requests from the Senate and the House–including deciding to prevent specific members from seeing particular intelligence.

And both women described the absurdity by which a quarter-million contractors can get Top Secret clearance but the members of Congress selected to conduct oversight over Executive Branch intelligence activities (including, in an ideal world, over those very same contractors) couldn’t get access to the same information the contractors got.

Pelosi and Schakowsky seemed thoroughly frustrated with the joke that has become of intelligence oversight, particularly since the Bush Administration found a bunch of new ways to game the system and now the Obama Administration has threatened to veto House efforts to eliminate the ways Bush succeeded in gaming the system.

And of course, we discussed all these complaints in the context of last week’s WaPo series and what Pelosi calls the “Leviathan” of the intelligence contracting world, in which, right now, Congress can’t conduct cost analysis of contractors or measure the efficacy of the outsourced programs.

Now, I’m pretty sympathetic with the frustration with the arrogance of Administrations that refuse to share information.

Nancy Pelosi: Now, not having to do with the difference between ranking and regular members, when I became Ranking Member, I was in the room all the time and this and that oh my god and then you can’t and members are taking votes and you’re thinking, ‘You don’t even know what you’re voting on.’


So but if you’re a Senator–and this is why the Senate doesn’t mind that much–if you’re a Senator and you want to go and get any information on intelligence–I’m not talking about highly compartmented–

Marcy Wheeler: Wiretapping and interrogation…

Pelosi: Well, it just depends on what they might be at any given time. I’m just talking about intelligence information. Intelligence. You’re a Senator [knocks on table] Here it is. You’re a House member, you have to have a vote of the Committee.

Schakowsky: Yes you do.

Pelosi: … to get it. Which you may or may not get. And which the Administration may or may not approve, depending on who it is and the rest of that. Read more