Legislation expected to hit President Obama's desk soon contains a little-noticed provision intended to fill a gap that prevents intelligence agencies from sharing information on potential terrorist threats, according to lawmakers and aides.
The provision, contained in legislation authorizing programs and spending for U.S. intelligence agencies, would exempt certain files containing sensitive operational information from being publicly released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The exemption would kick in when intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, make those operational files available to analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center, according to aides. Those analysts now face obstacles getting access to the operational files when searching across multiple databases when tracking threat streams.
The counterterrorism center's director, Michael Leiter, identified the issue as a problem during testimony last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"Mr. Leiter said that this provision, an exemption from FOIA for operational files, was necessary to gain access to all necessary terrorism intelligence in order to identify, analyze, and prevent terrorist attacks," according to a statement released Wednesday by Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein's office. "This bill includes this provision."
The Senate unanimously approved the intelligence authorization bill Monday. House Democrats expected to have enough votes to pass the bill late Wednesday, setting the stage for the president to sign it into law as early as today.
But the bill came under heavy criticism from some House Republicans, chiefly Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra.
For example, Hoekstra asserted the bill was not updated to address gaps exposed by recent attempts to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States, such as an effort to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day and an attempt to blow up a vehicle in New York City's Times Square on May 1.
Senate and House Democrats fired back at Hoekstra, saying the FOIA exemption provision is intended to address gaps exposed by the attempted attacks.
"Mr. Hoekstra's comments on this bill are inaccurate and misguided, and raise objections to things that are not in the current version of the bill," Feinstein's office said. "The bill also gives the [director of national intelligence] statutory authority to spend funds quickly to improve information sharing on terrorist threats both inside and outside the intelligence agencies."
On Tuesday, Hoekstra charged that the bill contains earmarks, which lawmakers used direct spending toward special interests. But in an interview Wednesday, Hoekstra said the bill authorizes earmarks contained in the FY10 Defense Appropriations bill -- a separate piece of legislation from the intelligence authorization bill.
"The [intelligence] bill authorizes the appropriations passed and the appropriations bills have earmarks in them," Hoekstra said. "It authorizes all of the expenditures that were done in the Defense appropriations bills."
He said the earmarks are "the worst kind" because they are classified and not disclosed to the public.
Democrats countered by saying Hoekstra was misrepresenting the bill when it comes to earmarks. "It is a remarkably dishonest accusation," said one Democratic aide.
A spokeswoman for Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee added: "There are no earmarks, classified or otherwise, in this bill. In fact, there is no classified annex to the bill."