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Hill Wary of Intelligence Oversight Changes

Several lawmakers and staffers said the commission's report largely ignores important changes Congress made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, such as creating a House committee on homeland security. Congress's oversight structure is adequate, they said, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon proved only that lawmakers must aggressively demand answers and accountability from executive branch officials.

Congressional leaders say they will seriously consider the commission's recommendations. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) recently named 22 of the 100 senators to a task force to recommend changes in intelligence oversight. The group's top Democrat, Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), told reporters Thursday: "Anytime you try to change the status quo as far as committees, it's very difficult. But I think people exaggerate how hard it is to change."

President Bush met with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on Wednesday to discuss legislation for intelligence reform. (Ron Edmonds -- AP)

The Sept. 11 commission wrote that "few things are more difficult to change in Washington than congressional committee jurisdiction and prerogatives." But the commission's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, said in an interview Friday that he and his colleagues will not be content if Congress merely "tinkers around the margins" of its oversight structure.

Lawmakers do not have to adopt the report's precise remedies, but they must shake up the status quo, said Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana.

"Structural change is essential, because you must have budget authority to have effective oversight," he said. "What you have now is not working. . . . There's a lot more interest in Congress in reforming the executive branch than in reforming themselves."

Frist and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have given few signs of how far they would go to persuade colleagues to accept the commission's calls for change.

Frist recently said Congress can modify its committee structure, but "it's a tough issue, because in each case it involves a change or somebody has to give up something."

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the speaker is keeping an open mind. But when the House created the homeland security committee, he said, it was "important to have authorization and appropriations separately, so you have redundancy. You improve oversight that way." Granting the two powers to a single intelligence committee, Feehery said, "would be very difficult. But we haven't made a final determination."

Murtha suggested that public indifference makes it easy for Congress to resist changes to its arcane, tradition-bound structures. "I haven't had one person at home ask me about this stuff," he said. "It's a Washington thing."

The commission's final report seemed to anticipate such comments. "The American people," it states, "may have to insist that these changes occur."

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