WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- A bipartisan bill that would require the House intelligence panel to share oversight with other congressional committees is just the most visible sign of a growing unease on Capitol Hill about the way the secret aspects of the U.S. war on terror are monitored by Congress.
"In order to exercise proper oversight, House committees need all pertinent information and, unfortunately, that process isn't functioning as it was intended to," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
The bill would amend rule 10 of the House of Representatives' regulations -- the rule that deals with oversight committee jurisdiction. It would effectively compel the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to grant requests from other committee chairmen for documents or briefings related to intelligence activities that impinge on their jurisdiction.
The legislative calendar for the remainder of the session is very crowded, and though the bill's supporters say they are working hard to mobilize momentum behind it, the next chance to consider the question might not come until a new Congress has to vote on its regulations next year.
Nonetheless, some congressional staffers of both parties say, the bill is just the most visible sign of a growing unease about the way the intelligence committees are working.
"It is a shot across the bows," said one veteran congressional staffer. "The natives are restless," he went on, referring to members and staff of several committees he said were feeling shut out.
"The war on terror is a very complicated matter," the staffer said. "There are a lot of committees beyond the intelligence committees that have expertise, that have experience, that have jurisdiction, that have to be part of the process.
"They are being shut out."
Spokesmen for Reps. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Jane Harman, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking member of the House intelligence panel, both declined comment on the bill drafted by Flake and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. The two members of the House Judiciary Committee have worked across the aisle before on intelligence oversight issues, most recently on the issue of the National Security Agency's secret program of warrantless counter-terrorist surveillance.
"It is very clear," Schiff told United Press International in an interview, "that there's a very great deal of information on the operation of (the NSA and other secret programs) that the intelligence committee has access to that we also need to do our job."
In both chambers of Congress, bills to give a legislative basis to the NSA program and other surveillance initiatives undertaken as part of the administration's declared war on terror have been referred primarily to the Judiciary Committee. But it is the intelligence committees and their staffs that have been briefed on the programs.
"We cannot do the oversight we need to if we are reading about these programs in the newspaper," Schiff said, arguing that the law required the intelligence committees to alert other committees when they came across information about activities that might fall under their jurisdiction.
"That is not being done," he said.
"There's growing unease," said a senior Democratic House staffer. "There's concern that the intelligence committee is in the pocket of the (intelligence agencies) too much.
"It's getting the fox to guard the henhouse."
The staffer said that although Democrats had criticized House Republicans for their record on oversight generally, there were much more profound cultural and other barriers in regard to secret U.S. intelligence agencies.
"It's more deep-seated than just a party thing," the staffer said. "The institutional obstacles would in the end tend to dull the edges," of any chairman, even the keenest and most aggressive.
"The (agencies) would wear (them) down," the staffer said, adding that they had become accustomed to being able to stall or brush aside inconvenient oversight requests. "The Republicans have let them off the hook," he complained.
A spokesman for Flake, Matthew Specht, told UPI the bill had been referred to the Rules Committee, rather than to the Intelligence Committee itself. He called this a "helpful" move.
Another veteran House staffer, this one from the GOP, told UPI the rule changes were necessary because both the agencies and the intelligence committees were using "the broadest possible interpretation" of an exemption in the legislation for intelligence sources and methods.
"The statute grants (the intelligence committee) exclusive jurisdiction over sources and methods," said the staffer, "but they ... are saying it basically covers everything."
"You end up with this closed, almost incestuous relationship" between the committees and the agencies. "It is very self-satisfied."
For their part, many intelligence veterans who have worked at both ends of the oversight process believe that that exclusivity fosters a better understanding of the nature of intelligence work.
Changes to committee jurisdiction are always among the most ticklish reforms, since they involve the diminution or aggrandizement of that most hallowed congressional institution -- turf.
But something that looks like a head of steam is building up behind the idea that changes need to be made to the way intelligence activities are overseen by the Congress.
Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office conducted an assessment of the administration's progress on counter-terrorism information-sharing. But the office of the newly minted director of national intelligence declined to cooperate with its inquiry, citing what it said was long-standing precedent.
"That was like lighting a match," said the GOP veteran staffer, adding that the new director's staff had admitted at a later meeting that they "made a mistake" in claiming such a broad, blanket exemption from scrutiny.
Going forward, the staffer added, they had promised to examine cooperating on a "case-by-case" basis