Intelligence Bill Would Require Senate Confirmation for NRO Director and IG

Intelligence Bill Would Require Senate Confirmation for NRO Director and IG

The Senate-passed version of the latest Intelligence Authorization bill would require that the Director and Inspector General (IG) of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) be subject to Senate confirmation, as well as the Director and IG of the National Security Agency (NSA).   The House-passed bill requires only that the NSA IG receive Senate confirmation.  A Senate Intelligence Committee press release, however, predicts that the House will accept its version.

The Senate’s FY2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, S. 1681, was reported from committee last fall (S. Rept. 113-120), but the version passed by the Senate on June 11 is an “amendment in the nature of a substitute.”  The new version retains language from the previous text, however, requiring Senate confirmation for the NRO Director and IG.  The bill passed by voice vote.

The House passed a two-year bill for both FY2014 and 2015 on May 30.  It was an amended version of what the House Intelligence Committee cleared in November.  There is nothing in the unclassified version of that bill about national security space activities including any requirement for Senate confirmation of the NRO Director and IG.  

NRO design, builds, and operates the nation’s signals and imagery reconnaissance satellites.  Its Director and IG are currently appointed by the President.  The Senate’s requirement that they henceforth be confirmed by the Senate come at a time when relationships between the Executive Branch and Congress on intelligence matters are under considerable strain.  The Senate committee also has shown strong interest for several years in tradeoffs between the expensive government-built imagery satellites under NRO’s control versus buying commercial imagery from companies like DigitalGlobe.

Senate confirmation is required for a wide range of top level Executive Branch officials from Cabinet secretaries to NASA’s Chief Financial Officer.  The confirmation process not only gives the Senate leverage over who is appointed in the first place, but subsequently those individuals can be required to testify, presumably providing more transparency for Congress to know what is going on in the Executive Branch. 

Quite a few top-level intelligence officials already are subject to Senate confirmation, including the Director of National Intelligence and Director of Central Intelligence along with several of their top staff and their agencies’ IGs and the Under Secretaries of Intelligence at DOD and the Department of Homeland Security, as a few examples.

The Senate bill would add a total of four more positions to the list:  the Director and IG of NRO and the Director and IG of NSA.

In its report, the Senate committee said that Senate confirmation “will improve oversight and accountability and, ultimately, the effectiveness of the agencies in question.”  The committee added, however, that it actually thinks fewer positions across the government should be subject to Senate confirmation and it would “evaluate” whether other positions in the Intelligence Community that currently require Senate confirmation can be relieved of that requirement. 

The House-passed bill would add a requirement of Senate confirmation only for the NSA IG.   Even though the Senate bill affects four positions and the House version only one, a press release from the Senate committee issued after the bill cleared the Senate asserts that the measure would now go to the House “where it is expected to be passed in its current form and sent to the president for enactment.”  Whether the President will agree to Senate confirmation for these positions remains to be seen.

Separately, in its report on the bill last fall, the Senate committee included extensive language encouraging the use of commercial satellite imagery generally and specifically allowing commercial firms to sell data with higher resolution — 0.25 meter — than the 0.50 meter then allowed.   The government recently agreed to the 0.25 meter limit.

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