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They call it oversight

The biggest intelligence issue on Capitol Hill this summer has not been the nomination of retired Gen. James Clapper to be the Director of National Intelligence, nor The Washington Post's investigation of abundant and out of control intelligence work, nor the Wikileaks torrent on Afghanistan. Instead, it's been a classic inside-Washington battle over who will be privy to intelligence secrets, and by extension, how much Congress will be able to effectively execute checks and balances over the executive branch.

On Thursday, the Senate intelligence committee passed its version of the fiscal-year 2010 intelligence authorization bill, calling for overseers with more power and better accountability over the secret agencies.

The House won't get to its version of the authorization bill until after its summer recess, but even then, none of the major issues that have held up the bill are likely to be rubber-stamped.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is "still talking with the administration to work out some issues," Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi said Thursday night.

One of those issues is who gets to know what when it comes to briefings on intelligence matters.

Pelosi wants more lawmakers than the "Gang of Eight" to be in on most spy agency briefings. "It's impossible to do proper oversight if you don't know what's going on," Daly said.

The Gang of Eight refers to the House and Senate leadership and the majority and minority heads of the intelligence committees, the select legislators who are often briefed on the most sensitive programs.

Some in the House would like not only to see more legislators brought in on sensitive programs, but also the Government Accountability Office given more responsibility for oversight of intelligence agency programs. The Senate abandoned such a provision in its bill after a threat of presidential veto, but the House Speaker is said to be talking to administration officials about getting the GAO provision into the House version of the bill.

Congressman Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight under the House Committee on Science and Technology, is one pushing for the GAO provision.

He argues that GAO has the expertise, experience and size to oversee intelligence work -- something he thinks congressional committees sometimes lack.

"The intel community has successfully insulated themselves from that kind of scrutiny to the determent of taxpayers and we aren't getting oversight of the substantial amount of money we're spending on intelligence," Miller said in a phone interview. "It has prevented us from being able to tell if they're doing their job successfully in keeping us safer, and prevents us from telling if they're abusing their powers."

The Senate's version of the authorization bill has some measures for oversight. Here's a summary of what the bill does, according to the Senate intelligence committee:

» strengthens and expands the responsibilities for the inspector general in the Director of National Intelligence. That position would have power to do internal oversight of the intelligence community.

» makes the inspector general at the Central Intelligence Agency more independent.

» creates inspectors general positions for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Security Agency.

» requires more Congressional notifications -- some in writing -- and more clarity for covert action programs and other intelligence work.

» provides better record keeping in briefings to House and Senate leadership.

» makes the Director of National Intelligence report on how the intelligence community complies with laws and executive orders on detention and interrogation activities.

» improves the intelligence community's acquisition and management process to prevent "misuse of funds and major cost overruns on intelligence programs.

» improves oversight and privacy protections in the government's cyber security work.

Sen. Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement after passage, "this bill ... [which] improves Congressional oversight and gives the top spy chief more authority, is a critical first step."

It's hard to see in the Senate version, though, where Congress is actually demanding any more tools to do the job. Perhaps the most powerful voice for more effective oversight will be the new Director of National Intelligence himself. Congress could be his best friend in both figuring out the big picture with regard to intelligence, and in reforming the post-9/11 weaknesses that have been preserved in the oversight system.

By Dana Hedgpeth and William M. Arkin  |  August 9, 2010; 7:15 AM ET
 | Tags: Director of National Intellligence, James Clapper, Senate Intelligence Committee, intelligence budget  
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