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Bill gives more in Congress access to secret intelligence

By Pam Benson, CNN National Security Producer
  • Bill expands top clearance to all House and Senate intelligence committee members
  • Currently, only members of the "Gang of 8" are privvy to secrets programs
  • Obama is expected to sign the measure into law
  • House Republicans almost unanimously opposed, calling the bill flawed

Washington (CNN) -- Congress has sent President Barack Obama a bill that that will significantly increase the number of lawmakers notified about the administration's most secret intelligence activities.

Final passage of the bill had been held up by a dispute over how to adjust the notification procedure to allow more members of Congress access to information concerning sensitive spy programs.

The new ground rules require that when the so-called Gang of 8 congressional leaders are briefed by the administration on a covert or top secret program, the 37 members of the Senate and House intelligence committees must be notified and be given a general description of the matter being discussed with the leadership. If after 180 days the details of the secret program are still restricted to the Gang of 8, the administration must provide a statement explaining why the limited access must continue.

The current law allows the executive branch to brief only eight congressional members when the the president feels it is essential to limit access to the information. The group consists of the speaker and minority leader of the House, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and the chairman and vice chairman of the House and Senate intelligence committees. The congressional leaders are prohibited from taking notes or discussing the programs with any other lawmakers or staff.

During the Bush Administration, the eight were the only lawmakers informed about some of the controversial programs undertaken after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- the use of domestic wiretaps and CIA interrogations and detentions.

Once those programs were publicly exposed in the media, many members of the congressional oversight committees expressed outrage that they knew nothing about them and accused the administration of preventing them from doing their job.

Each of the intelligence committees came up with proposals to change the notification provision within the intelligence authorization law, but a threatened White House veto prompted the leadership of the committees to come up with a compromise acceptable to the administation. But that agreement was shot down by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who objected because the compromise did not include a provision to notify all members of the oversight committees about secretive briefings.

The new bill passed the House Thursday night by a vote of 244-181 and marked the first time in six years Congress has agreed on new intelligence authorization legislation. The Senate had given its approval earlier in the week.

Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, called passage of the legislation long overdue and said it reverses a trend that has impeded and weakened congressional oversight.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said the bill gives the intelligence community the tools it needs to keep America safe.

"In an era when we face innovative and aggressive adversaries, the intelligence community needs the flexibility to adapt," Reyes said.

Although the bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, all but one Republican opposed the legislation in the House. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the bill is flawed and makes the nation more vulnerable. He accused Democrats of not addressing security gaps exposed by the three major attempted terrorist attacks in the past year.

He also said expressede anger that the bill did not have language prohibiting suspected terrorists from being read Miranda rights and transferring detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.

Other provisions in the authorization bill include providing the Government Accountability Office more access to information about intelligence activities; creating an inspector general for the entire intelligence community who will have the authority to inspect activities in any of the 16 intelligence agencies and departments; and giving the Office of the Director of National Intelligence more authority and flexibility over personnel decisions, acquisition oversight and the ability to convert contractor positions to government jobs.