In a dramatic moment on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, as the upper chamber rushed a spending bill through to end the government shutdown, the top Republican and Democrat on the Intelligence Committee warned that the bill contains language that would kneecap Congress’s ability to oversee secret covert actions and surveillance programs. Their effort to amend the language was rebuffed.
The intelligence community, in its latest grasp, has gone too far even for Richard Burr. The Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence committee has long been one of the Senate’s staunchest advocates for the intelligence agencies, leading the fight to reauthorize surveillance programs and fighting to bury the results of the Senate’s five-year investigation into CIA torture. But he took to the Senate floor Monday to warn that it would compromise Congress’s ability to oversee secret intelligence programs.
“This language could erode the powers of the authorizing committee,” Burr said. “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.”
The provision, first reported by The Intercept, appeared in the House version of the spending bill last week and modified the 70–year-old-law that first chartered the CIA. It removed language requiring intelligence agencies to spend money according to Congress’s instructions, and replaced it with a provision that allows the agencies to move money around freely and without Congress’s knowledge. Blackwater founder Erik Prince has recently pitched the administration on a private intelligence force that would report directly to President Donald Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The move cuts off the Intelligence Committee’s most effective means of oversight, because it allows the intelligence community to repurpose funds in the event that the legislature eliminates funding for a certain program, the senators charged. “If this exemption is granted, 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 time out, or to say we actually disagree with that policy,” said Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Jennifer Hing, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, said that the senators were blowing it out of proportion. “This language was publicly requested by OMB/DoD. It is standard language CRs have carried before,” she said, referring to the spending bill, known as a continuing resolution. (The other abbreviations stand for the Office of Management and Budget and Department of Defense.)
Burr asked for unanimous consent to substitute replacement language into the bill that would restore Congress’s ability to dictate spending and found himself in a jurisdictional turf war with the Appropriations Committee. “We should have inserted this new language. But because of a fight between Appropriations and the Intelligence Committee in the House, we weren’t able to do that. And I have a feeling that Senator Warner and I are going to find that there is now a fight between the Intel Committees and the Appropriators of the U.S. Senate, because I fear somebody might object to the unanimous consent,” Burr said, noticing Sen. Thad Cochran, the Republican chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, conspicuously present in the chamber. Cochran did indeed object, and Burr then yielded the Senate floor with “with great disappointment.”
Cochran’s entry into the debate adds another wrinkle, as the veteran senator, at 80, has struggled cognitively in recent months. Politico reported last year that he appeared “at times disoriented during a brief hallway interview.”
However, when queried about whether he would stay on as Appropriations chairman, Cochran seemed confused and just repeated the question. “As chairman of the Appropriations Committee?” Cochran asked.
Cochran had to be guided by staffers around a security checkpoint inside the Capitol. He started to walk into a first-floor room — though the Senate chamber is on the second floor. He was then ushered by an aide up to the Senate.
When another reporter asked whether leadership had pressured Cochran to return for a vote on the budget resolution — a key moment in the tax reform debate — Cochran smiled and responded, “It’s a beautiful day outside.”
Cochran sat quietly in his seat during Wednesday’s lengthy vote session. He smiled and responded when a fellow senator stopped by to offer greetings, but generally did not speak to anyone else.