United Press International
October 22, 2004

Intel reform bill running out of time

by Shaun Waterman

Lawmakers Friday are to continue efforts to hammer out compromise legislation implementing the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission before the Nov. 2 election.

A meeting of the House-Senate conference charged with resolving the broad differences between the bills passed by each chamber that had been scheduled for Thursday was cancelled amid growing signs that it might be impossible for lawmakers to complete their work in time to get a bill on the president's desk before the election.

By Thursday afternoon, key legislators had not seen the much-touted compromise proposal being drafted by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the conference.

"We're still working on that," one House GOP staff member told United Press International.

Frustrated supporters of reform, including many relatives of Sept. 11 victims, accused the House GOP leadership of blocking progress.

"Despite public promises from Speaker (Dennis) Hastert, R-Ill., that he would not stand in the way of a bill, there are now serious questions about whether the Republican leadership and the White House really want this to happen," Mary Fetchet, of the Family Steering Committee, a group of victims' relatives advocating for reform, told UPI.

Three issues continued to thwart progress.

The bills differ on the question of the authorities of the new national intelligence director that both create to run the 15 U.S. spy agencies. The Senate bill gives the director much greater power over the budgets and personnel of the eight agencies inside the Department of Defense.

The White House has supported the Senate bill on this issue, but allies of the Pentagon say they are concerned that giving the director too much power over these agencies, which build and run the nation's spy satellites and other surveillance equipment and spend more than three quarters of the nation's $40 billion intelligence budget -- might leave warfighters without access to needed intelligence.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argues that the control of strategic assets like spy satellites is essential for the armed forces. "We have to be very, very careful," he said Wednesday, "not to sever that lifeline."

He said that the original House bill "strikes a good balance," and that Hoekstra's compromise proposal "really stretches the position of the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States."

"I think it may go a little too far," Hunter concluded.


But other sticking points remain. A provision of the Senate bill declassifies the amount of money the United States spends every year on intelligence. The White House opposes making the so-called "top line" public, as do House Republicans.

"There's no reason not to declassify that number," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Aftergood said that the acting CIA Director John McLaughlin told Congress last month that it made sense to declassify the budget top line. "There's the national security assessment right there," said Aftergood.

"Taking out that provision would be the triumph of prejudice over policy... exactly the kind of reflexive secrecy that the Sept. 11 commission warned about."

Nonetheless, House Republicans were adamant that the provision would be removed. "I think we'll get that out," said a GOP leadership aide.

The final barrier is a series of provisions in the House bill that strengthen USA Patriot Act-type surveillance powers and toughen immigration and border controls.

These measures are not included in the bill passed by the Senate, which specifically voted down efforts to add similar provisions to its legislation. The White House has supported some of them, but called for others to be removed or amended.

"The Senate won't have that," said one Democratic Senate staff member, "They'll all have to come out."

But House GOP leaders argued that several of these additional provisions were recommended by the Sept. 11 commission and all of them were designed to make the country safer. "These are not extraneous provisions," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee which authored most of them. "They are vital."

Several GOP staff members told UPI that there was some doubt that a compromise bill without any of the law enforcement or border provisions would get the votes it needed to pass.

"The point is to get a bill that Hunter and Sensenbrenner will support," said John Feehery, spokesman for Hastert.

Others believe that the whole issue will be moot if a deal is not struck by Monday.

Congress would have to be recalled to vote on the final, reconciled legislation and Frist has promised lawmakers at least 72 hours to review the bill before voting on it. With a significant number of lawmakers in tight re-election contests, recalling Congress after the middle of next week is not really an option, say some staff.

"As far as I know there's no pre-agreed drop dead day," said Feehery, "but obviously everyone knows if this is going to get done by the election, there's no time to waste."

Cognizant of the onrushing deadline, Hoekstra and other House Republicans began work this week on a compromise proposal.

"Someone had to take a leadership role," said Hoekstra, arguing that the size and complexity of the bills hurriedly passed by the House and Senate in the closing days of the congressional session earlier this month made his approach the only viable one.

Hoekstra said that congressional staff, meeting ahead of Wednesday's formal gathering of the conference, had spent five hours working their way through 17 pages of a 212 page-long document laying out the differences between the House and Senate bills. "And that wasn't resolving anything," he told reporters after the first formal meeting of the conference broke up amid acrimony and Democrat charges that the House GOP were freezing them out, "That was just outlining the issues."

Nonetheless, the House GOP's decision to try and carve out a third way between the conflicting bills brought no little criticism on Hoekstra, primarily because of charges that Republicans had sought to freeze out Democrats.

"If we were going to make progress," said Hoekstra, "someone had to be willing to catch the spears for ... stak(ing) out some positions."

Other Republicans were blunter. "Why can't the Senate simply... send over a compromise package of their own?" asked one senior staff member.

"This process is doomed before it begins."


Copyright 2004 United Press International