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Inside the Pentagon
August 16, 2001
reposted with permission

CIA's Refusal to Testify on Infosec Prompts Debate on House Rules

Amendment intended to clarify committee jurisdiction

The CIA's recent decision to withhold information about its computer security practices from a congressional panel has raised legal questions within Congress regarding the jurisdiction of its committees.

In April, the intel agency denied a House Government Reform subcommittee access to information on how it protects classified systems, citing a recent change in the House Rules that gives the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence “exclusive oversight responsibility over the sources and methods of the core intelligence agencies.”

As the subcommittee attempts to determine whether the CIA should be excluded from its government-wide review of computer security policies -- and if computer security constitutes part of an agency's methods -- intel experts are debating the merit and purpose of the recent rule change.

One source familiar with the amendment, which was added with little fanfare to the House Rules on Jan. 3, said its purpose was to clarify existing rules.

“There was increasing intrusion by a lot of committees” into the HPSCI jurisdiction, the source said.

The HPSCI shares jurisdiction of intelligence agencies with several other House committees, including the Armed Services, International Relations, Judiciary and Appropriations panels.

Rep. Porter Goss (R-FL) chairs the HPSCI and serves as vice chairman of the Rules Committee. Neither committee returned calls for comment.

The source speculated that another reason for drafting the amendment may have been to keep other committees from delving into such topics as computer security policy -- even in a classified forum -- and later inadvertently revealing to the public an agency's sources and methods. The HPSCI, as well as its counterpart in the Senate, is well versed in handling sources or methods, the source said, and has always held exclusive jurisdiction in such areas.

“There's nothing new,” the source said of the amendment. “There's nothing suspicious.”

During a Jan. 3 floor debate, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA) defended the amendment, promising Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of the House International Relations Committee and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, that “the proposed rules change will not hamper your oversight efforts” of domestic intelligence programs within the law enforcement community.

“The House should know that this change is not meant to circumscribe in any way, shape or form the oversight or legislative jurisdiction of the House Committee on the Judiciary,” Dreier said. “As an ardent supporter of programmatic oversight, it is my intention that [the committee] continue to vigorously and fully pursue those matters within its oversight jurisdiction.”

Critics of the recent amendment, however, contend it essentially gives HPSCI sole oversight of the intelligence community. They say the creation of the intelligence committees was not intended to alter the existing authorities of other panels.

“This attempt to exclude [other congressional committees] from a particular subject area is contrary to the [House and Senate] rules as they've existed in the past and as they exist today,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, told Inside the Pentagon on Aug. 14.

Aftergood first reported the amendment in his e-mail newsletter, Secrecy News, after the CIA refused to testify before the House Government Reform government efficiency, financial management and intergovernmental relations subcommittee on its computer security practices.

According to the subcommittee, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet initially expressed concern about the possibility of disclosing sensitive information during a public hearing. After panel members agreed to a classified session, the CIA concurred but withdrew its participation a few days before the session was scheduled to convene.

The CIA cited the amendment to the House Rules in declining to testify.

The source familiar with the amendment said efforts to secure classified systems fall under the “sources and methods” of the CIA, and that it is no surprise the agency refused to testify.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Steve Horn (R-CA) was so incensed by Tenet's rebuff, however, that he held a separate hearing to discuss the matter. A spokesman for Horn said last week that the amendment remains a “live issue” and has since prompted a meeting between full committee staff and House leadership.

“We're not interested in pursuing issues that involve the CIA's sources or methods of operation,” Horn said during a July 18 hearing. “We do not want to jeopardize the security of this nation of the safety of its intelligence agents and operatives.

“To the contrary, our examination of computer security issues is part of the subcommittee's attempt to ensure that this and other information is being adequately protected,” Horn added. “Surely the CIA should not be exempted from such a government-wide effort.” -- Anne Plummer

Copyright 2001 Inside Washington Publishers

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