Senators were patting themselves on the back yesterday for passing some of the intelligence reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 commission. But behind the scenes, the legislative process has been an egregious example of congressional politics as usual.
Legislators have embraced the commission's call for a national intelligence director and national counterterrorism center that would, in theory, coordinate intelligence efforts in the executive branch. But they have ignored or gutted the commission's proposal for similar reforms in the way Congress oversees intelligence.
"Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important," the commissioners stressed in their final report. They urged that Congress give its intelligence committees control over both authorizations and appropriations -- so that the committees would finally have the muscle to provide real oversight.
Why did the Senate bill scuttle these internal reforms of what the commission called a "dysfunctional" system? Because they would have threatened the turf of powerful legislators. To be blunt, the senators put their own perks and prerogatives ahead of the nation's security.
The House version of the bill isn't finished yet, but it's likely to be even worse. Not only have members ignored calls for internal reform, but the Republican leadership has loaded the bill with controversial proposals -- apparently in the hope that Democrats will have to vote against it, giving Republicans an easy script for political attack ads.
"It's outrageous. The American people should be angry," says former senator Bob Kerrey, who was a member of the Sept. 11 commission and for eight years served as a member of the Senate intelligence committee. He argues that it would have been better to drop the executive-branch changes if Congress was not going to reform itself. "These are secret agencies," he explains. "Unless you put in place strong oversight, it isn't going to work."
By focusing on appropriations power, the Sept. 11 commission was challenging one of Congress's most sacred cows. Longtime Capitol Hill observers know the appropriations committees are where Congress's real clout resides and what sustain its culture of logrolling and mutual back-scratching.
"The appropriators rule here -- the fix is in," says Sen. John McCain. The maverick Arizona Republican has compiled data showing that in the 10 years the Republicans have controlled Congress, the number of "earmarked" pork-barrel spending projects moving through appropriations committees has grown from 4,126 a session to 14,040. The Senate defense appropriations subcommittee alone gets more than 3,000 requests for special projects from other senators; this session, the House Appropriations Committee has received more than 33,000 such requests.
Because the real power lies with appropriations, the intelligence agencies know they can safely ignore pressure from the intelligence committees. Indeed, major contractors that do business with the intelligence community -- such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and TRW Inc. -- are said to spend little time lobbying the intelligence panels because they know the appropriators have the power of the purse. CIA directors recognize the same reality: They can ignore the intelligence committees as long as they keep stroking the appropriators.
Congressional aides cite examples of how this system has hurt intelligence: Sen. Robert Byrd, a master of the appropriations process, is said to have agreed a few years ago to support the creation of a new Measurement and Signatures Intelligence Center -- but only if it were located in his home state, West Virginia; the proposal eventually died. Sen. Richard Shelby, a well-connected former chairman of the intelligence committee, managed to steer many projects to a Missile and Space Intelligence Center in Huntsville, Ala., that is now named after him. Congressional aides chuckle over an underused Air Force supercomputer center in Maui that was pushed by Hawaii's Sen. Daniel Inouye, another wizard of the appropriations process.
Behind this logrolling lies the biggest pork dispenser of them all, the Pentagon. In league with the armed services committees in both houses, the Pentagon has managed over the years to maintain control over about 80 percent of the intelligence budget that goes to the code-breaking National Security Agency and military units.
That system of Pentagon prerogatives will stay in place despite the Sept. 11 commission's efforts to dislodge it. Sen. John Warner, who as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is the Pentagon's best friend, managed to win passage of an amendment this week ensuring that the defense secretary -- not the new national intelligence director -- will nominate the heads of the NSA and the other agencies.
A telling example of how the current system misfires came not long ago, when the Senate intelligence committee decided after long study to cancel an expensive satellite reconnaissance system. The Appropriations Committee promptly restored funding. That's the sort of monkey business that's guaranteed to continue, with a Congress that's prepared to clean every house but its own.