WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- President Bush Tuesday told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that he would broaden the number of congressmen receiving classified briefings --reversing an earlier decision to restrict the information to the congressional leadership and top members of the foreign relations and intelligence committees.
In an Oct. 5 memo Bush limited some sensitive briefings to just eight members of Congress, while signaling that Congress might get more information if lawmakers clamp down on apparent leaks that could endanger U.S. troops.
"It will be broader than that," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee of the eight-member limit. "He talked straight. He said he was angry. He was angry as the devil. If I had been president I would have sent the same darn memo."
Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the ranking GOPer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Reps. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., both from the House International Relations Committee traveled to the White House for a meeting after President Bush scolded a contrite Congress for leaking sensitive information, but lawmakers said they still need classified briefings.
Lantos said he explained to Bush that constitutional law requires the president to brief members of Congress, even during war. Congress has a duty to oversee the executive arm, Lantos pointed out.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told United Press International that the president realized a memo did not supercede law and the circle of congressional members allowed access to briefings would indeed be widened.
Buchan said the president wanted to send Congress a strong, clear message that classified information must remain classified.
"I have no doubt that the Armed Services Committee, Foreign Relations Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee, Intelligence Committee and anyone on a need-to-know basis would be able to have access to the information," Biden said.
The president voiced his displeasure during a White House news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He explained that information contained in security briefings on Capitol Hill was shared with the press.
"I took it upon myself to notify the leadership of the Congress that I intend to protect our troops. And that's why I sent the letter I sent," Bush said.
"I understand there may be some heartburn on Capitol Hill. But I suggest if they want to relieve that heartburn, that they take their positions very seriously and that they take any information they've been given by our government very seriously, because this is serious business we're talking about."
Lawmakers expressed anger and contrition if Congress has been the source of leaks, but said they would press President George Bush to continue classified briefings with lawmakers under some new arrangement to prevent security breaches. The administration must continue to brief lawmakers who have a duty under the Constitution to oversee the executive branch of government, lawmakers from both parties said.
"No one believes that the President of the United States (would be) able to pursue this long-term objective without the Congress being thoroughly briefed," Biden said, adding that dispute was behind them.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he was outraged by any leaks of classified information whether from Capitol Hill or the administration, and called for an investigation. "But the Congress has a Constitutional role involving oversight," Daschle said. "And that involves the sharing of information."
The Oct. 5 Bush memo limited administration security briefings about "classified or sensitive law enforcement information" to eight members of Congress -- the leaders of each party in the House and Senate, plus the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Sen. John McCain said lawmakers would seek a dialogue with the White House to ensure that briefings continue. "We have to set up a dialogue now between congressional leaders and the administration concerning how information can be disseminated to all members of Congress, since they do have a right to know," McCain said. "But the burden is also on us members of Congress not to disclose classified information."
The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, as well as the Foreign and International Relations Committees all have clearance to receive classified briefings. Those committees have immediate responsibility for overseeing -- and authorizing funding for -- military activities and foreign relations. Leaders of those committees were not included in the eight members the Oct. 5 memo said would stay in the loop on law enforcement briefings.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. Carl Levin, R-Mich., said a briefing with Pentagon officials set for later this week has been postponed while Congress and the White House interpret the Oct. 5 memo from Bush.
"We need to have classified briefings," Levin said.
Other White House officials on Tuesday spent the day defending the decision to limit the briefings.
"It's an effort to make certain that Congress has the information that it needs while making certain that nobody is put in a position where they inadvertently would give any information that could harm anybody's life as a very sensitive military campaign is underway," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer would not comment on any particular news article that might have precipitated the memo. Republicans in Congress, however, said Bush reacted to an Oct. 5 story in the Washington Post about a security briefing delivered to Congress. According to that story, administration officials reportedly predicted a "100 percent" chance of a future terrorist attack if the U.S. strikes Afghanistan.
Some lawmakers said privately that sensitive news stories that appear to originate in Congress often come from the administration instead. The Washington Post story cites "sources familiar with the briefing."
Lawmakers also said they would go around Bush's ban, if necessary, by seeking briefings from members in the group of eight briefed by the administration.