Last year’s controversial Intelligence Reauthorization Bill, spawned in the wake of the Iran-Contra fiasco, has returned in an updated version that has once again swept through Congress amid minimal fanfare from the national press. After a year of backroom negotiations between the Administration and the congressional intelligence committees, both houses of Congress passed H.R. 1455 on July 31. President Bush signed the new bill on August 16, 1991.
The intelligence bill is essentially the same as the 1990 proposal, which was pocket vetoed by the President over provisions which he felt encroached on his executive authority. The new bill, while not giving the President exactly what he wants, is vague enough to satisfy both his desire for flexibility and Congress’s desire for statutory covert action oversight authority.
One key provision from the previous version, which the President objected to, was a requirement that the President authorize all covert actions in advance with a written “finding.” Under the old bill, this provision has two exceptions. First, in an emergency situation, the President has 48 hours after the fact to draft a written finding. Second, while the finding would usually be provided to both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in extraordinary cases the President may limit notification to congressional leaders.
The President’s first objection was to have to notify Congress when soliciting third-party nations or individuals to take part in covert operations which he felt would seriously hamper foreign policy efforts. The new law will only require the White House to notify Congress if a third-party will participate “in any significant way” in a covert action and even then their identity may remain confidential.
The second objection dealt with the wording on how fast the President should notify Congress after issuing a “finding” authorizing a covert action. The original bill required the President to inform Congress “in a timely fashion,”, which lawmakers sought to define as “within a few days.” Committee members now concede that the President may interpret the phrase as he sees fit.
President Bush made no secret of his intentions to utilize this loophole at will. Upon signing the legislation he stated that sometimes disclosure “could significantly impair foreign relations, the national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties.”
Critics say that these loopholes are large enough to render the new oversight law, and Congress’ enforcement role, meaningless.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: SCOTT SOMOHANO
SOURCE: CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY WEEKLY REPORT 1414 22nd St., NW, 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20037, DATE: 8/3/91
TITLE: “Senate Clears Retooled Measure Strengthening Hill Oversight” AUTHOR: Pamela Fessler
SOURCE: WALL STREET JOURNAL, 200 Liberty St., New York, NY 10028, DATE: 8/16/91
TITLE: “Bush Signs Funding Bill For Intelligence Agencies”
SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90037, DATE: 8/1/91
TITLE: “New Restrictions on Covert Action Passed by Congress”
AUTHOR: Michael Ross
COMMENTS: Author Pamela Fessler felt the issue received minimal coverage with little if any network television or newsweekly coverage. “Considering the fact that the legislation was the main legislative by-product of the Iran-contra scandal, it’s surprising it didn’t receive more attention,” Fessler said. “The bill completely changed the requirements the administration must meet in reporting covert actions to Congress — presumably allowing for greater oversight.”
In general, Fessler believes the public would benefit by being made more aware of what Congress does and how the legislative system works. “They most often are exposed to scandals and pay raises now,” she continued. “People have a very distorted picture of Congress and government in general, leading, I think to a lack of participation in the political process.”
If any interests were served by the lack of coverage given the intelligence oversight legislation, Fessler believes it might have been the media themselves. “Let’s face it,” she concluded, “some of this stuff is boring and hard to cover. It’s much easier to cover a congressional pay raise debate or a fight over taxes.”