Feinstein Cries Uncle, Schedules Spy-Czar Confirmation Hearing

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein has dropped her threat to delay confirmation hearings on James Clapper, the Obama administration’s pick for national intelligence director. The senator was demanding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allow a House floor vote on a bill containing intelligence oversight reforms that Feinstein is seeking. The senator and other supporters of the reform measure had previously indicated that the Senate intelligence committee was likely to stall action on Clapper’s nomination until something was done to urge Pelosi to stop blocking the bill. Nevertheless, Feinstein has now scheduled a confirmation hearing for next Tuesday.

Some Senate officials are calling Feinstein’s decision an abject cave-in. In a June 28 appearance on Fox News Sunday, the senator said she wanted President Obama himself to pressure Pelosi to allow a vote on the reform bill before the committee took action on the Clapper nomination. “I've asked that the president would please talk to the speaker. If he does that, I will move ahead,” Feinstein told host Chris Wallace.

But two congressional officials, requesting anonymity when discussing a sensitive political issue, say they’ve seen no signs that Pelosi is ready to relent—and no indication, either, that Obama has asked her to stop blocking the bill. One of the officials says there have been “very high-level contacts” between administration officials and the speaker’s office regarding the reform legislation, but the official can’t say whether the president was personally involved, nor is the official aware of any change in Pelosi’s position. “She [Feinstein] caved,” the other official says. “She didn't even wait for Obama to call Pelosi—which was the last thing she said she would do.”

An official familiar with Feinstein’s position says the senator still wants the reform bill to move forward. But the official says Feinstein is concerned that the national intelligence director’s chair, which was vacated nearly two months ago, needs to be filled as soon as possible—preferably before Congress adjourns for weeks in August. The official points out that a timely hearing is particularly important because the acting czar, Deputy National Intelligence Director David Gompert, expects to depart by the end of August. Leaving both posts open could jeopardize national security, the official suggests—and Feinstein certainly wants to avoid that risk.

As we reported here and here, the House and Senate both approved versions of a long-delayed intelligence-authorization bill, but the White House balked at provisions that would have significantly increased congressional oversight powers. In the face of White House veto threats, House and Senate negotiators came up with a compromise bill that watered down some of the provisions that the White House had objected to. The compromise is backed by Senate Democrats and Republicans and House intelligence committee Democrats—though Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking House intelligence committee Republican, says he still has reservations. Pelosi’s office has said she doesn’t want the bill to go forward unless it abolishes a highly restricted oversight process known as “Gang of Eight” notification (in which no more a handful of top congressional leaders are informed of the most sensitive spy operations). But the White House has warned that Obama will veto the bill if it forecloses that option.

Pelosi’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Feinstein’s press secretary, Philip LaVelle, gave us this statement: “Senator Feinstein believes that the Intelligence Authorization bill is important legislation that should move forward. It strengthens the ability of both intelligence committees to provide oversight, and it has bipartisan support and the support of the administration. She also believes that the Senate intelligence committee should move forward with the DNI confirmation hearing before the August recess, particularly in light of the fact that Mr. Gompert, the acting DNI, is retiring.”