SECTION REDIRECT: news

Senate Approves Overhaul of Spy Agencies

PoliticsCrime, Law and JusticeEspionage and IntelligenceUnrest, Conflicts and WarNational GovernmentLaws and LegislationTerrorism

The Senate gave final passage today to a bill putting a single director in charge of the nation's spy agencies, capping a contentious, five-month legislative push to respond to the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks.

After months of dramatic negotiations and many predictions that the effort would fail, the Senate's final action, one day after the House passed the bill, was a quiet affair - the top-heavy outcome of 89-2, with Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) casting the only votes against the measure.

President Bush has promised to quickly sign the legislation into law. He intervened last month to save the bill, after a pair of powerful House committee chairmen blocked House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's effort to bring it to a vote during the post-election lame duck session.

Under current law, the Pentagon controls some 80% of the estimated $40 billion annual intelligence budget. The bill would transfer some of that authority to the national intelligence director, who will write the budgets for those intelligence agencies that do not provide combat support.

The national intelligence director also will be able to shift limited amounts of money from one intelligence program - or agency - to another, and to reassign some personnel from one agency to another. The director also will serve as the president's chief intelligence advisor.

The legislation also codified the national counterterrorism center created by executive order that is meant to coordinate intelligence collection and analysis across agencies, and creates a civil liberties board charged with ensuring that the government's war on terror does not infringe on civil liberties and privacy.

The bill's many law enforcement, border security and immigration elements include provisions that will increase the number of detention beds available to hold illegal immigrants and increase the number of border patrol officers.

The bill allows the government to more easily track suspected "lone wolf'' terrorists, believed to be operating independently of any organization. It also lays out federal standards for issuing drivers licenses - considered an element in fighting terrorism because the documents identify individuals.

The bill, which runs to more than 600 pages, contains other measures meant to strengthen border security and expand the federal government's law enforcement powers in the fight on terrorism. In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union said it opposed the bill because some of the provisions infringe on civil rights and privacy.

"This restructuring will centralize the intelligence community's surveillance powers, increasing the likelihood for government abuses, without creating sufficient corresponding safeguards," the organization said in a statement. "In one of the biggest disappointments, the compromise bill severely watered down a strong, independent review board designed to protect civil liberties. On one hand, lawmakers want to vastly increase the government's power; on the other, they want to diminish oversight."

Relatives of some of those slain in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and members of the Sept. 11 commission, hailed the bill's passage.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking member of that committee, said the legislation addressed flaws in the intelligence system detailed by the Sept. 11 commission.

The commission found that the lack of a single, powerful intelligence director had contributed to a culture in which the 15 spy agencies often hoarded information rather than sharing it.

Collins and Lieberman have devoted hundreds of hours to negotiating the details of the bill since Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) turned to their little-noticed committee, rather than the Armed Services or Intelligence committees, to tackle the most sweeping reworking of the intelligence community in decades.

"We did not want a figurehead," Collins said on the Senate floor as the bill was debated.

The junior senator from Maine has earned praise from her colleagues - and begrudging respect from House opponents - for her tenacious defense of the core powers of the national director of intelligence.

Still, even as a string of senators rose to praise the rare bipartisan effort that had produced the bill and predicted that it would start the fundamental transformation of the intelligence community, some said Senate negotiators, in their determination to get the bill enacted into law, had made too many concessions to the House.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was "mystified" that the Senate had agreed to drop several provisions from the Senate's version of the bill meant to ensure the independence and objectivity of intelligence gathering. Levin had written several of those provisions in what he said was an effort to stop the politicization of intelligence.

Byrd decried the speed with which Congress enacted the bill, saying it was such an important governmental reform that it deserved far more scrutiny than it was given by lawmakers who received the final version just hours before voting.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who joined forces with Lieberman after the Sept. 11 attacks to push for creation of the commission investigating what went wrong, said the legislation was "monumental."

Vice President Dick Cheney played a key role in negotiating the final bill. A former House member and former secretary of Defense, Cheney was tapped by Bush to persuade House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) to support the legislation after Hunter joined forces with House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) to block it last month.

Hunter had argued that the bill could have endangered troops during times of war because it failed to protect the Pentagon's access to real-time strategic intelligence. Sensenbrenner wanted to retain provisions of the House bill that would have made it virtually impossible for states to issue drivers licenses to illegal immigrants and increased the burden of proof on immigrants seeking asylum in this country.

Cheney brokered compromise language between Hunter and Senate negotiators on the military chain-of-command that Hunter accepted Sunday night, paving the way for the bill's passage by the House Tuesday and today's Senate vote.

The final bill does not include the controversial law enforcement and immigration provisions Sensenbrenner sought. He opposed the legislation in the final House vote, but the White House and the House Republican leadership promised House conservatives that they would attach the provisions to the first piece of legislation taken up next year that is considered certain to pass. That is expected to be the White House's multibillion-dollar request for more funds to fight the Iraq war.

The House and Senate spent hundreds of hours reconciling the vastly different bills each chamber passed in early October. The contours of the debate differed from the sharply partisan divisions that have become routine on important pieces of legislation in recent ears.

This time, instead of dividing along party lines, proponents and opponents of the bill divided along committee lines. The intelligence committees of each chamber pushed for more sweeping reforms to fix the flaws they said were exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks and later, by the intelligence community's inability to accurately assess Iraq's weapons capabilities. The armed services committees of both chambers were more wary of changes, and fought to preserve the Pentagon's turf and budget authority.

"I still believe that some of the sections of the bill grant such authorities to the director of national intelligence which places him or her above those of the president's Cabinet,'' said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a member of the Armed Services Committee, in his floor speech today. Stevens voted for the legislation, but said he did so with reservations.

"I believe we have created an intelligence czar whose authorities will far exceed any other governmental official, other than the president," he said. "This should be of concern to everyone, because the director of national intelligence is not an elected official, and is not directly accountable to the American people.''

But the provisions of the bill are open enough to interpretation that lawmakers and outside experts said it was unclear exactly how much authority a new director will have.

Some civil libertarians feared the sharing of information by federal agencies may threaten civil liberties. Others critics feared that Congress had only succeeded in creating another layer of government bureaucracy.

Several senators pointed out that the bill fails to address the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations calling for Congress to reorganize itself to better oversee the intelligence community. The commission had urged that the creation of a national intelligence director be accompanied by an overhaul of oversight that now divides responsibilities among dozens of committees.

But congressional leaders have said the battles over the powers of the national director of intelligence will pale in comparison to the struggle that lies ahead when they tackle the task of shifting oversight responsibilities between some of the most powerful and turf-conscious committees on Capitol Hill.

Family members of Sept. 11 victims who have stalked members of Congress across the marble floors of the Capitol for months, pleading with them to pass the intelligence reform bill, promised they would be back to push for oversight reorganization when the new Congress starts in January.

In an open letter to Congress, the dozen members of the Sept. 11 Families Steering Committee, who lobbied for the creation of the Sept. 11 commission and have lobbied relentlessly for intelligence reform, offered both praise and prodding to lawmakers. The bill, the group said, "accomplishes our main goal, which was to fix our nation's broken intelligence system.''

But the group said that "more work needs to be done. One critical issue is reorganizing Congress so our intelligence agencies will have the oversight required to ensure it is doing its job.''

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), one of two lead House negotiators on the bill, said she was "jubilant'' that the legislation was completed.

"It has been rare, certainly since my own election to Congress in 1992, to have huge bipartisan victories for good policy,'' Harman said. "We arrived at a carefully constructed compromise which didn't make anyone totally happy, but did garner an overwhelming majority'' in both chambers.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading