Obama threatens veto of intelligence spending bill over Holt Anthrax amendment

The Obama Administration is threatening to veto Congress’ intelligence spending bill for this fiscal year because of an Amendment sponsored by Congressman Holt asking the intelligence community’s inspector general to look into whether intelligence suggesting foreign influence in the anthrax attacks was overlooked is a factor in the decision. From a March 15 letter by Peter Orzag, we learn that the budget bill “still contains several provisions of serious concern to the intelligence community” and if not fixed, they would recommend a veto of the whole bill:

The concerns are outlined in a seven-page document, and the anthrax amendment is ninth on the list of issues. Orszag said an investigation would be “duplicative, and the Administration is greatly concerned about the appearance and precedent involved when Congress commissions an agency Inspector General to replicate a criminal investigation.”

Congressman Holt didn’t appreciate the push back against further investigation of the anthrax attacks:

“I am not surprised at the FBI’s opposition to [a Congressional investigation], given the fact that they have stonewalled every House and Senate member who has sought information on this investigation over last decade,” Holt wrote. “What surprises me is that an Administration that has pledged to be transparent and accountable would seek to block any review of the investigation in this matter.”

I’ll put the full text of his letter to Orzag below the fold. The FBI has been trying to close this investigation for years and Congressman Holt has continued to push for answers. He recently introduced legislation to create a Commission that would look into the 2001 attacks and the federal government’s response. Emptywheel has been all over some of the gaping holes in the FBI’s story. It’s disappointing that the Obama Administration would oppose getting answers and looking back so that we can be prepared when someone tries to do this again.

March 18, 2010

Peter Orszag

Director

Office of Management and Budget

Eisenhower Executive Office Building

Washington, D.C.  20503

Dear. Mr. Orszag,

I am in receipt of your letter of March 15 to Chairman Reyes regarding the Administration’s concerns over two provisions I included in the Fiscal Year 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act (H.R. 2701).  Let me begin by addressing the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s claims regarding my provision on the “Amerithrax” investigation.

As you may know, the 2001 anthrax attacks evidently originated from a postal box in my Congressional district, and they disrupted the lives of people throughout the region and the country.  For months, Central New Jersey residents lived in fear of a future attack and the possibility of receiving cross-contaminated mail.  Mail service was delayed and people wondered whether there was a murderer at large in their midst.  Further, my own Congressional office in Washington, D.C. was shut down after it was found to be contaminated with anthrax.  Therefore I have followed closely the case and the investigation.

In the wake of the attacks and at a number of points thereafter, a number of media reports-citing government officials, usually anonymously-suggested a possible link between the attacks and foreign entities.  Most of these stories attempted to link Iraq to the attacks, but questions have also been raised about whether the strain of anthrax used in the attacks had been supplied to foreign laboratories.  My provision in H.R. 2701 is designed to have the DNI IG address those issues, to determine whether, in fact, all available intelligence on this topic was supplied to investigators.  The provision itself is unremarkable in its scope and does not, contrary to the Bureau’s assertion, constitute Congress directing the Inspector General of the intelligence community to “replicate” a criminal investigation.  However, I am not surprised at the FBI’s opposition to it, given the fact that they have stonewalled every House and Senate member who has sought information on this investigation over last decade.  What surprises me is that an Administration that has pledged to be transparent and accountable would seek to block any review of the investigation in this matter.  

The Bureau has asserted repeatedly and with confidence that the “Amerithrax” investigation is the most thorough they have ever conducted-claims they made even as they were erroneously pursuing Dr. Steven Hatfill.  Instructing the DNI IG to ensure that all intelligence information was in fact passed to the FBI would not “undermine public confidence” in the investigation.  Many critical questions in this case remain unanswered, and there are many reason why there is not, nor ever has been, public confidence in the investigation or the FBI’s conclusions, precisely because it was botched at multiple points over more than eight years.  Indeed, opposing an independent examination of any aspect of the investigation will only fuel the public’s belief that the FBI’s case could not hold up in court, and that in fact the real killer may still be at large.  However, that is not the primary purpose of this provision in H.R. 2701.  It is appropriate that the Intelligence Community contemplate whether it did consider this case and would consider a similar case properly to protect Americans from bioterrorist attacks.  The people of central New Jersey, the Congress, and the Administration need to know that every lead-foreign and domestic-was supplied to the FBI and investigated thoroughly.  My provision in H.R. 2701 would help ensure this goal is achieved, and I urge the Administration to support this provision.

Regarding my detainee videorecording requirement in H.R. 2701, I would remind you that comparable opposing arguments were offered last year for an extremely similar (and yet more stringent) video recording provision in the FY10 National Defense Authorization Act.  I note that the President did not object to that provision, which is now law and which the Defense Department is implementing without difficulty.  Indeed, that provision contains a waiver mechanism that the Secretary of Defense can exercise, provided he informs Congress of the reasons for suspending the videorecording sessions.  I am happy to work with the Administration on crafting a similar waiver provision, provided that it does not compromise effective Congressional oversight of detainee interrogation policy.  

Our police officers and prosecutors know well the value of recording custodial interrogations, which is one reason why then-State Senator Obama championed the use of custodial videorecording when he served in the Illinois state legislature.  The intelligence community also clearly understands the value of it, as General Keith Alexander acknowledged to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in July 2004 regarding detainee interrogation videorecording conducted at Guantanamo, as revealed in documents made public through Freedom of Information Act litigation earlier this year.  

Given the tremendous value that the recording of detainee interrogations provides to our intelligence community-and the protection it helps afford both the detainee and the interrogators-I trust the Administration will work with me and the committee to resolve this issue.

Thank you for your distinguished service to our nation.

                                                           Sincerely,

                                                           RUSH HOLT

Comment (1)

  1. Dvd Avins

    There are very few conspiracy theories I consider at all likely to be true. There is only one of import in the pst 40 years. But whether they know something or merely have the same hunch I do, there may be GOP rocks that the administration does not want overturned, perhpas unless they are universally acknowledged not to have pushed the investigation.

    Reply

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