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Intelligence Bill Struck an Armed Services Reef

Times Staff Writer

Few people have more at stake in the fight over legislation to overhaul the nation’s intelligence community than Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who led House conservatives in a successful bid to block the bill this weekend.

As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Hunter was defending the Pentagon -- and his own committee’s turf -- when he resisted efforts to shift authority over much of the intelligence community’s budget from the Defense secretary to a new national intelligence director.

And as one of the few members of Congress with a son who has served in the Iraq war, Hunter said he was also defending the 138,000 troops battling insurgents across a territory the size of California.

Not even phone calls from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney could persuade Hunter to back House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) when Hastert sought Republican support Saturday for a compromise intelligence bill written by House and Senate negotiators. Hunter’s opposition -- coupled with that of House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who objected to the deletion of some of the House-passed immigration and law enforcement provisions aimed at terrorists -- probably doomed the bill for this year.

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Republican leaders sent the House and Senate negotiators back to work with the aim of producing a bill by Dec. 6. “We can do it,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

But even many of the bill’s supporters were skeptical. “I just don’t see it as of Dec. 6,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said on “Fox News Sunday.”

And one of Frist’s own senior advisors, Eric Ueland, said, “It is premature to pronounce the last rites, but it takes a willing suspension of disbelief to pretend it will easily pass in early December.”

Republicans had hoped to produce a bill underscoring the president’s commitment to security and responsiveness to the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. Instead, they produced another piece of unfinished legislation in a session already rife with them.

And some Republicans’ unwillingness to fall in line behind a bill supported by the White House raised questions about what support Bush could expect from House Republicans in the looming battles over Social Security, tax reform and immigration in his second term.

Hunter was pivotal to the outcome of the intelligence bill, and he said he did not hesitate to speak out against it Saturday at a meeting of House Republicans.

“I see our people -- these remarkable people in uniform in Afghanistan and Iraq -- doing such a great job for the country,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday. “It is not that difficult to stand up for them.”

Besides, Hunter said, he believed he was voicing concerns that the Republican leadership privately shared.

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“I think there’s a part of the speaker that is perhaps happy that we haven’t concluded this deal,” Hunter said, adding that Hastert “would much rather have had the House version” of intelligence reform, which called for more limited authority for a national intelligence director than the Senate-passed bill.

Hunter, a 24-year veteran of the House Armed Services Committee who became the chairman in 2002, made his objections to the intelligence reform effort known in August. The Sept. 11 commission had just issued its final report, detailing the events leading up to the 2001 terrorist attacks and laying out 41 recommendations for government reforms to better fight the global war on terror. Chief among them was establishment of a national intelligence director to coordinate the activities of the government’s 15 spy agencies.

In an interview published Aug. 5 in the Los Angeles Times, Hunter said he would not be “steamrollered” into supporting the creation of a national intelligence director. His primary concern, he said, was that the link between the Pentagon and intelligence provided by satellites and other means be maintained. He opposed having a national intelligence director who could somehow disrupt that link.

Hunter stuck to his position after Hastert named him to the ad hoc House committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate intelligence bills. He enlisted the support of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, who wrote a letter to the negotiators saying that the Defense Department preferred the House bill because it granted more limited authority to a national intelligence director over budgets. The Pentagon controls about 80% of the intelligence agencies’ annual estimated budgets of $40 billion.

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Hunter said Sunday that he believed his credibility on the issue with his colleagues was enhanced by the fact that his son, Marine 1st Lt. Duncan Duane Hunter, had been in Iraq. Many members, Hunter said, had known his son since he was a small boy.

“My son is an artillery officer and fought in the first battle of Fallouja,” Hunter said. “He did some unusual things with intelligence assets that folks haven’t done before.” In operations these days, Hunter said, his son and other troops were “pulling down lots of stuff from the intelligence platforms, the satellites that have become as important to our war fighters as reconnaissance cavalry troops were to Robert E. Lee.”

Duncan Duane Hunter, 27, recently returned to his base at Camp Pendleton from a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq, Hunter said.

A computer programmer who enlisted in the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the younger Hunter followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the military. The elder Hunter fought in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 as an Army Ranger. Duncan Duane Hunter’s grandfather was an artillery officer in the South Pacific during World War II.

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The congressman visited his son on the battlefield in Fallouja in June during a congressional tour of Iraq. Hunter said that after he had returned to Washington, his son called him from the heart of Fallouja to complain when the administration ordered Marines to halt their operations and turn security over to Iraqi forces.

Experiences like that, Hunter said, made him determined to help shape the intelligence reform effort to ensure that combat troops would not be denied access to real-time intelligence.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), said Hunter from the beginning spearheaded opposition to the bill passed by the Senate that would have created a strong national intelligence director.

She said Sunday that some House Republicans simply did not want a bill. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” she said: “More unfortunate is that the president, as commander in chief ... couldn’t get the secretary of Defense to stop his opposition ... which emboldened some of these House folks to dig in.”

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At a news conference in Santiago, Chile, where he is attending a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders, Bush said Sunday that it was “very clear” that he wanted the bill passed.

“When I get home, I look forward to getting it done,” Bush said.

Hastert had enough votes Saturday to pass the bill, but only with Democratic support. He did not want to let Democrats take credit for passing the bill, nor did he want to leave Republicans on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees feeling that they had to vote against a bill that the Sept. 11 commission called essential for protecting Americans against future terrorist attacks.

“For Hastert, this was a long-term problem,” said one House Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You don’t want all these guys feeling resentment toward the leadership because they got rolled on this thing. You don’t want them feeling they were forced to vote no on something that could have made them look bad back home.”

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Besides, Roberts said, opposition to the bill was broader than Hunter and Sensenbrenner. “Some of it is from the Pentagon,” he said. “Some of it, quite frankly, is from the White House, despite what the president has said.”

Hunter said Sunday that he still believed an intelligence bill could be completed this year. But Beverly Eckert, one of a group of family members of Sept. 11 victims who met with Hunter last week to urge him to support the intelligence bill, said she did not believe he would change his position.

“He talked about his son coming home from Fallouja,” Eckert said. “Obviously, any parent is going to fight to the utmost to protect his child. We felt compassion toward him, and he expressed compassion for our losses. But he sees the world in military terms, and sees a military solution” to the war on terrorism.

“We tried to express to him that his son and other soldiers would not be in a situation where their lives were at risk had there been better intelligence -- Afghanistan, Iraq could have been avoided.”

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Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.


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