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Senate OKs National Intelligence Director After 5-Month Struggle

Times Staff Writer

The Senate gave final passage Wednesday to the 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 negotiations and predictions that the reform effort would not succeed, the Senate’s action -- one day after the House passed the bill -- was a quiet affair: an 89-2 vote, with Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) casting the only negative votes.

President Bush has promised to sign the legislation into law quickly. He personally intervened to save the bill after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) decided not to bring it to a floor vote over the objections of a pair of powerful committee chairmen.

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

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

The bill also calls for creation of a civil liberties board, charged with ensuring that the government’s war on terrorism does not infringe on civil liberties and privacy.

Still, the American Civil Liberties Union said it was opposed to the measure.

“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.

The bill, which runs more than 600 pages and contains many law enforcement, border security and immigration measures, includes provisions to:

* Increase the number of detention beds available to hold illegal immigrants

* Increase the number of Border Patrol officers

* Make it easier for the government to track suspected “lone wolf’” terrorists believed to be operating independently of any organization

* Establish federal standards for issuing driver’s licenses.

Relatives of some of those slain in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as members of the commission, hailed the bill’s passage Wednesday.

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

That panel found that the lack of a single, powerful intelligence director had contributed to a culture in which the nation’s 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 Sen. 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.

Even as a string of senators rose on the chamber’s floor Wednesday to praise the bipartisan effort that had produced the bill, some said they believed Senate negotiators had made too many concessions to the House.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he was “mystified” that the Senate had agreed to drop several provisions from its 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; lawmakers received the final version just hours before voting.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who joined forces with Lieberman after Sept. 11 to push for creation of the commission, said he believed 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; Hunter had joined forces with House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (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 keep provisions of the House bill that would have made it virtually impossible for states to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and that would have increased the burden of proof on those seeking asylum in the U.S.

Cheney brokered compromise language that Hunter accepted Sunday night, paving the way for the bill’s final passage by the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday.

The final bill does not include the controversial law enforcement and immigration provisions Sensenbrenner had sought, and he opposed it in the final House vote.

But the White House and the House Republican leadership promised to attach the provisions to the first piece of high-priority legislation taken up next year.

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 called for overhauling the oversight system that divides responsibilities among dozens of committees, a structure the commission said meant no one was really scrutinizing the government’s expanding war on terrorism.

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

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A new direction

One day after overwhelming House passage, the Senate voted 89-2 to pass legislation that will revamp the way intelligence agencies combat U.S. enemies, particularly terrorist networks.

The bill:

* Creates a director of national intelligence position; the director will oversee and coordinate all intelligence agencies.

* Sets up a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board of presidential appointees to ensure protections.

* Requires minimum standards for driver’s licenses and birth certificates.

* Strengthens rules to require a personal interview for nonimmigrant visa applicants between 14 and 79 years old.

* Adds 2,000 Border Patrol and 800 customs and immigration agents for each of the next five years.

* Obligates the implementation of a transportation security strategy for aviation, air cargo and ship security.

* Provides for wiretap powers to pursue individual terrorism suspects not affiliated with a group.

What changed

To pass the legislation, both the House and Senate made compromises. Among them:

The Senate:

* Relinquished a provision that would have declassified the top line of the intelligence budget, which currently is secret (and will stay that way) as the House and White House wanted.

* Gave up several provisions meant to ensure the independence and objectivity of intelligence gathering.

* Agreed to limit the amount of money the director of national intelligence can transfer from one program to another and between agencies and to limit the director’s power to transfer personnel from one intelligence agency to another

* Dropped a provision that would have given a new civil liberties board subpoena power.

* Accepted the House’s specific national standards on driver’s licenses rather than leaving those provisions to the Department of Homeland Security.

The House:

* Surrendered a provision making it virtually impossible for states to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

* Gave up several provisions that would have raised the burden of proof for those seeking political asylum.

* Abandoned a proviso that would have completed the border fence between California and Mexico.

* Withdrew provisions that would have applied the death penalty to more federal crimes.

* Waived a provision to expand the use of expedited removals to make it easier to deport an illegal immigrant without a hearing.

* Discarded a provision to prohibit federal officials from accepting matricula consular cards for IDs from illegal immigrants.


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