The House Intelligence Committee voted Thursday to withhold funding from the nation’s intelligence director over concerns that his office, which was created to streamline operations in the nation’s spy community, is instead becoming bloated and bureaucratic.
At the same time, Republicans on the House panel defeated a Democratic push to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in spy agency funding until the Bush administration provided more information about a controversial domestic espionage program being conducted by the National Security Agency.
The measures were considered as part of the 2007 intelligence authorization bill, which sets the spending priorities for the nation’s spy agencies.
The move to withhold funding still must be approved by the full House as well as the Senate. But it reflects rising frustration among House lawmakers with an office that was created less than two years ago to solve communication breakdowns and other problems that plagued the intelligence community leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.
The bill would require the nation’s intelligence director, John D. Negroponte, to present a detailed rationale for any additional increases to his staff or risk losing a portion of his budget. The measure was endorsed by Republicans and Democrats.
“We’re concerned about some of the steps that are going on” at Negroponte’s office, said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said Negroponte needed to demonstrate that any further expansion would improve coordination among intelligence agencies, and would not amount to “putting in more lawyers and slowing down the process.”
Rep. Jane Harman (DVenice), the ranking Democrat on the committee, cited similar concerns.
“We don’t want more billets, more bureaucracy, more buildings,” Harman said. “We want more leadership.”
The action by the committee represents one of the most pointed public rebukes of Negroponte and the course he has set in assembling a staff to oversee the activities of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies.
A spokesman for Negroponte, Carl Kropf, said that the intelligence director’s office had not yet seen the House bill. Kropf declined to respond to criticism that Negroponte’s office was becoming bloated, except to say that “we are within the limits of the law that established” the director of national intelligence.
Since Negroponte was sworn in less than a year ago, his staff has grown to about 700 employees, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The legislation that created the position provided for a few hundred initial slots, but allowed for the director to add as many as 500 employees through transfers from other agencies.
The intelligence office has named many high-level officials to oversee such intelligence activities as collection and analysis across multiple agencies.
Beyond his own staff, Negroponte is also directly responsible for new centers that coordinate the nation’s espionage efforts against terrorism and weapons proliferation.
House Intelligence Committee officials declined to say how much money would be withheld from the intelligence director’s office, or exactly what Negroponte would need to include in a report to the panel to get the money released.
Hoekstra described the report the committee was seeking from Negroponte as an “architecture study” of the intelligence office. Other congressional officials said the report would need to justify any additional hires and to explain the functions of existing offices.
In other action, Republicans on the committee defeated a Democratic amendment that sought to force the Bush administration to reveal the budget for the controversial NSA espionage program.
The Democratic measure would have withheld 20% of the NSA’s budget unless the White House agreed to disclose how much was being spent on the domestic eavesdropping program.
Democrats have complained that the White House is refusing to provide information on the program to all members of the intelligence committee. Hoekstra noted that 11 of the 21 members of the House panel were getting briefed on the NSA operation, but he said the committee was still engaged in a “tug of war” with the administration for greater access.