Temporary Spending Bill Relieves Intel Agencies From Oversight

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., right, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, oppose a provision that allows agencies to reprogram funds without telling Congress. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., right, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, oppose a provision that allows agencies to reprogram funds without telling Congress. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

Against the wishes of leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the newly enacted continuing resolution that funds the government until Feb. 8 contains a House-sought provision that could allow intelligence agencies to transfer funds to new operations without congressional approval.

Section 148 reads:

“Funds appropriated by the Department of Defense Missile Defeat and Defense Enhancements Appropriation Act, 2018 (division B of Public Law 115-96) may be obligated and expended notwithstanding section 504(a)(1) of the National Security Act of 1947.”

The new leeway was sought by the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget, according to the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy News blog summarizing a story first reported by The Intercept.  

“The vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee and I were notified when the House CR appeared that there was language in it that was different than in the past,” said panel Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., on Monday, after the language was defended by Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Burr called the provision “troublesome” and “untenable.”

Burr argued that “this language can erode the powers of the authorizing committee. Effectively, the intelligence community could expend funds as it sees fit without an authorization bill in place and with no statutory direction indicating that an authorization bill for 2018 is forthcoming.”

An unidentified congressional staffer told the Washington Examiner that the change mainly affects missile defense funds and “does not give the intelligence community a blank check” or affect the role of the intelligence panels.

That view was rejected by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the intelligence panel’s ranking member. “If this exemption is granted,” he said during floor debate, “you could potentially have an administration—any administration—go off and take on covert activities, for example, with no ability for our committee, which spends the time and has the oversight, to say timeout or to say we actually disagree with that policy.”

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