Lawmakers want in on secrets

The House on Wednesday passed legislation governing next year's intelligence budget that demands lawmakers be given greater access to the nation's most closely held secrets.

The bill is the latest attempt by Democrats, struggling to challenge President Bush on major national security issues, to step up their role in overseeing an intelligence program they say has gone astray. Lawmakers complain that the Bush administration left most of them out of the loop on highly classified – and controversial – matters, including creation and destruction of CIA interrogation tapes and Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

The bill, which passed on a voice vote, would block two-thirds of the federal covert operations budget until each member of the congressional intelligence committees is briefed on all secret operations under way. Panel members also would be granted access to any other details necessary to assess the value of intelligence operations.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill because it says it would go too far and infringe upon the president's right to protect intelligence. In a statement Wednesday, the administration said the bill could expose information previously protected under executive privilege, including pre-decision legal opinions, risk assessments and cost estimates.

The legislation “would undermine long-standing arrangements between Congress and the president regarding reporting of sensitive intelligence matters,” the statement said.

The Senate still has to take up its version of the bill before a final measure can be sent to the president to sign. The Senate bill also is expected to provoke a veto threat because of a provision that would limit interrogation tactics used by the CIA.

Before final passage, the House adopted by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., that would require the administration to provide Congress an update on its October 2007 national intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear program.

It also agreed, 249-180, to an amendment by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would prohibit any part of the intelligence budget from being used to discourage the use of such phrases as “jihadist” or “Islamo-fascism” to describe terrorist activities. Many experts contend the use of these terms can cause religious offense and are frequently applied incorrectly.

Other provisions in the House bill that provoked a veto threat include a prohibition on the use of contractors to interrogate detainees and a demand that the CIA inspector general audit all covert operations every three years.

The administration contends that the required audits would “interfere with the independent judgment” of the agency.

The amount in the intelligence budget is classified.