The House yesterday approved landmark legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence community, creating a director of national intelligence and a counterterrorism center to better coordinate government assets and avert the type of intelligence lapses that occurred prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The House's 336 to 75 vote puts the long-debated measure on the brink of enactment. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the 600-page bill today. Barring an unforeseen objection, senators appear ready to pass the measure, send it to President Bush's desk and adjourn the 108th Congress.
The bill would create a director of national intelligence, who would replace the director of central intelligence as the president's senior intelligence adviser. The new director would have broader budgetary responsibilities and would be in charge of monitoring and tasking domestic and foreign intelligence operations.
The White House has not signaled yet whether CIA Director Porter J. Goss, the former Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, would become the director or whether he would remain at the agency.
The new national director would be subject to Senate confirmation. If Bush nominated Goss, confirmation hearings could focus on his decision this summer to bring four GOP committee aides to the CIA and their roles in the unexpected retirements of senior officers in the clandestine service.
Although the new intelligence director would have greater authority than the CIA chief does over the budgets of the 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, he or she would not direct or control the CIA's operations.
Separating the nominal head of U.S. intelligence from the clandestine service officers who carry out espionage and covert action was a goal of the Sept. 11 commission, which said both jobs would be too much for one person. Some former secretaries of state and CIA directors, however, said the jobs should not be separated.
The bill would write into law the National Counterterrorism Center, which Bush created by executive order in August. Its director now would be a presidential appointee, confirmed by the Senate, who would report on counterterrorism operations directly to the president.
The bill also would create a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, designed to safeguard individuals' rights. It would establish minimum standards for birth certificates and driver's licenses, and tighten the security of Social Security cards.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called the House vote a "giant step closer to enacting this law that will make America safer and the American people proud." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said: "Despite calls from the left and right to either rubber-stamp the report or criticize it, the recommendations made by the 9/11 commission have been properly deliberated, and the result is a stronger bill that will allow us to better fight the war on terror."
The commission cited numerous lapses in U.S. intelligence operations and a lack of coordination in the months leading up to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Yesterday's vote ended weeks of political tension and brinkmanship, during which the bill's prospects often soared and dipped. The key breakthrough came last weekend when the White House helped broker a divide-and-conquer deal aimed at the two House GOP groups that had blocked the bill Nov. 20.
Lawmakers concerned mainly about Pentagon prerogatives were assured that the defense secretary, not the director of national intelligence, would continue to control spy satellites and aircraft. But those mainly seeking crackdowns on illegal immigration fared less well, winning only House leaders' assurance that immigration issues will be taken up early next year.
In a 90-minute closed meeting of House Republicans yesterday morning, the chief advocate of putting more immigration restrictions in the bill -- Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.) -- implored colleagues to hold out for a better deal. But with Hastert, DeLay and others urging lawmakers to embrace the White House-supported bill, Sensenbrenner could prevent only 67 Republicans from voting aye. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the measure, with only eight voting no.