WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed a pair of intelligence bills into law Thursday to improve oversight of sensitive spy operations and reduce the amount of threat information that is classified and kept from state and local authorities as a result.
Top intelligence officials in the Bush administration had been faulted for not fully informing Congress about highly classified programs, such as a secret plan to target terrorist leaders. CIA Director Leon Panetta abolished that program after it came to light last year.
The first intelligence measure passed by Congress since 2004, the new law also seeks to meet lawmakers' desire for more information.
Only eight key congressional leaders — the four House and Senate leaders and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — get regular intelligence briefings from the administration.
An earlier version of the bill would have opened those briefings to all committee members, spreading such information beyond the so-called Gang of Eight to potentially as many as 40 lawmakers. Obama threatened to veto it.
As a compromise, the new law calls for intelligence committee members to receive a “general description” of briefings and lets the White House decide what to tell committee members. In cases where the president limits congressional access, the full intelligence committees must be granted broader access to the information within six months or else be given a statement justifying the limited access.
Obama signed the bills in the Oval Office with only the congressional sponsors and news photographers as witnesses.
The second bill Obama signed would reduce the amount of threat information that is classified so state and local authorities can access the information they need to disrupt and prevent terrorist activity.
The law requires the Department of Homeland Security to produce declassified versions of threat information for these officials.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the bill's sponsor, said intelligence information is too often stamped 'secret' for the wrong reasons, such as to protect turf or avoid embarrassment instead of to protect sources and intelligence gathering methods.
The independent commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks had identified overclassification as a problem.
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