Intelligence Reform Looks Like a Lame Duck for Now

Times Staff Writer

Despite his public support for restructuring the nation’s intelligence community, President Bush has done little to ensure that reforms modeled on the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission pass in the coming lame duck session of Congress.

And the legislation, which has run into stiff opposition from the Defense Department, is thought to have little chance of passage when a new Congress begins work next year.

The reason for the lack of presidential follow-through appears to be White House reluctance to challenge Pentagon officials -- and their congressional allies -- who have argued that some of the proposed reforms would weaken the Defense Department’s ability to focus intelligence assets where they are most needed in time of war.


The Pentagon controls 80% of the nation’s estimated $40 billion annual intelligence budget. Under the restructuring plan based on the 9/11 commission’s report and approved by the Senate, much of that control would shift to a new national intelligence director. The House version of intelligence reform would shift less power to the new director.

Pentagon supporters have suggested that any major reduction in the Defense secretary’s budget power could endanger American troops in combat by depriving them of intelligence.

The lame duck session -- in which Congress will try to finish work on intelligence reform and other bills left hanging when it recessed for the Nov. 2 election -- begins Tuesday. It could run as long as two weeks, but may adjourn in a matter of days.

Bush has said he hopes Congress will complete a bill to create a strong national intelligence director and counter-terrorism center. His press secretary has said that completing the bill is a priority for the president.

But House and Senate supporters of major restructuring say they have seen no sign this week of high-level White House involvement to force a House-Senate compromise on the competing versions of the reform bill.

“It would take [Chief of Staff] Andy Card or Bush making phone calls to get this done,” said one Senate aide involved in the negotiations.

Congressional action during the lame duck session is vital, proponents of creating a strong intelligence director say, because the issue has begun to lose political steam.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), author of the Senate bill, has said she believes it will be nearly impossible to overcome opposition from entrenched bureaucracies and their defenders on Capitol Hill without the political momentum that pushed the House and Senate to act on intelligence reform before the national election.

When Bush said the day after his reelection that he looked forward to signing an intelligence bill soon, Collins called national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to say she was grateful for the president’s remarks -- and to ask for more help to get a bill finished.

Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and members of the commission that studied the attacks added their voices at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, calling on Bush to push for passage of the legislation.

But despite the White House pronouncements and these requests for help, negotiations to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills proceeded sluggishly this week.

House negotiators rejected the Senate’s latest compromise proposal. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert sent his chief of staff, Scott Palmer, to negotiate with Collins’ staff Wednesday, but no breakthrough was achieved.

Near the end of the week, some House negotiators said that the House had little incentive to get the bill done and was feeling no pressure from the White House to do so.

“The speaker’s office just doesn’t want to give up,” said one House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But so much of the urgency is gone with the elections over. Our hand only strengthens on a great many issues when we come back in January.”

Congressional observers speculated that the White House would still like to see a bill produced, but that it was loath to alienate the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, or to preempt newly appointed CIA Director Porter J. Goss’ anticipated reform efforts.

Also, said one Senate negotiator, the administration is not persuaded that either the House or the Senate bill provides the correct blueprint.

In a policy statement on the Senate bill, the White House said it supported the notion of creating a strong national intelligence director with full budget authority. But it has offered no rebuttal to the arguments by the House Republican leadership and House Armed Services Committee that the Senate bill could jeopardize the Pentagon’s authority over intelligence agencies that directly support combat operations.

And Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was allowed to write a letter to congressional negotiators emphasizing that the Pentagon did not want to see any disruption in the budget authority it had over combat-support intelligence agencies.

The only real hope of completing a bill next week lies in a Senate willingness to embrace the House vision of a less powerful national intelligence director, said James Lewis, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist think tank based in Washington.

“I don’t think you’ll see any dramatic changes,” said Lewis, who has followed the congressional debate closely.

Lewis said the fighting in Iraq has made lawmakers wary of instituting wholesale reforms of the intelligence community at this time.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a member of the ad hoc committee charged with reconciling the two bills, said he still believed the House and Senate could achieve a compromise if the Senate was willing to curb the national intelligence director’s budget authority.