WASHINGTON (AP) — The House voted Tuesday to shift intelligence dollars from satellites and other high-tech programs back to basic spying as lawmakers pushed to give embattled U.S. agencies tools to fight a wide range of threats.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, said that his panel, in an annual budget bill, made cuts to expensive and sometimes duplicative technology and was investing the savings in less expensive “human intelligence” programs, or traditional spying.
The bill was easily approved by a vote of 409-16.
Hoekstra said the trimming was done across a variety of programs — particularly space and airborne capabilities — but he would not offer specifics.
“Everything is a Cadillac. It goes to the extreme of what technology can deliver today,” Hoekstra said. “We have some critical decisions we need to make to make sure we keep minimal capabilities available.”
Details of what exactly will get cut and where the money will go are in the bill’s classified portion. Even the bill’s total price tag is not publicly known.
In a statement, President Bush’s budget office said it understood the bill’s classified section, which it hadn’t seen, made cuts to White House requests. “The administration … has serious concerns should that be the case,” it said.
For years, some Republicans and Democrats in Congress have argued that spy agencies lack a strategic plan on how best to spend the billions of dollars that go toward classified satellites, unmanned aircraft and other technologies.
In December, a dispute over a highly classified satellite program made a rare spill into the public when three Democratic senators on the intelligence committee complained that it was wasteful and unjustified. The multibillion-dollar program, believed to be code-named Misty, is aimed at making surveillance satellites less detectable.
Hoekstra would not explicitly say if the program was among those cut in his bill, but he said those issues “are still in play.”
“We have expanded the universe of things to talk about,” he added.
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Democrats raised objections to the bill’s silence on forming a commission to investigate detainee issues following more than a year of reports on abuse during U.S. detentions and interrogations.
“They must take place according to our laws and our values,” said California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel. “To do anything less puts our troops in harm’s way and erodes our moral credibility.”
The intelligence bill — the first since the first director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, took over in April — provides increased budget authority to train intelligence analysts and improve counterintelligence. It calls for increases to train clandestine officers.
And it sought to clarify Negroponte’s authorities over budgets, personnel and human intelligence programs.
Some moves were met with resistance.
For instance, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-California, wanted the power to approve the transfer of intelligence personnel within the Defense Department. But Hunter said he ultimately reached a compromise with Negroponte that required the two to meet before any shifts.
Intelligence committee leadership also dropped a measure that would have put the CIA director in charge of clandestine officers overseas from the FBI and Pentagon, a provision that also caused friction with Hunter.
The White House supported the efforts to scrap the measures.
Both disputes signaled that even as Negroponte establishes his new office, he continues to face challenges within a well-entrenched intelligence culture that’s been repeatedly criticized as reluctant to change.
Hoekstra concedes he has gotten “pushback” on the cuts made in the technical programs to make room for better human intelligence, noting that programs have constituencies and members of Congress who support them.
John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, said human intelligence programs are spent in million-dollar increments, whereas technical intelligence systems cost billions.
He said the hundreds of technical intelligence programs are forever getting slowed down or cut as needs change.
“I am assuming they are probably nibbling around the edges on a bunch of programs simply because there is so much to nibble on,” Pike said.