A dozen civil liberties, open government, and accountability organizations joined Defending Rights & Dissent to protest a provision included in the Continuing Resolution Congress passed to end the government shutdown on January 22. The provision allowed intelligence agencies to shift expenditures “notwithstanding Section 504 of the National Security Act.” That’s the law, passed in 1947, that is designed to prevent intelligence agencies from running amok (or at least from going too rogue) by preventing them from spending money on activities that Congress didn’t appropriate money for. And requiring them to inform Congress after the fact if they do switch money around.
In other words, Section 504 allows Congress to use it’s power of the purse to exercise oversight of intelligence agencies.
In a letter sent to the House and Senate Appropriations and Intelligence Committees, the coalition expressed concern that Congress had, “in effect, given the administration sweeping authorities to use funds, without authorization from Congress, to engage in covert intelligence activities that have not been approved by Congress, and about which Congress may not even be informed.” What those covert activities might be could include anything. As USA Today noted, “The Bush administration, for example, secretly approved enhanced interrogation techniques against terror suspects in the years immediately after 9/11. Congress later outlawed such techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation.”
The letter warns against including similar language in the next spending bill, and suggests that Congress require the Trump administration to disclose any shifts in expenditures implemented under the current CR.
Senators Burr (R-NC) and Warner (D-VA), Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee protested the provision and have promised to exorcise it from the next CR (which will need to pass by Thursday). Both Senators related the turn of events to the vote the previous week on Section 702. According to USA Today, “Burr and Warner said the provision to weaken their oversight power comes just after they promised civil liberties advocates in the Senate that they would ensure that the FBI and other intelligence agencies don’t overstep their bounds in carrying out a controversial surveillance program recently renewed by Congress.”