Key legislators on opposite sides of the deadlocked effort to reorganize the nation's intelligence community said yesterday that they will not compromise their positions to give Congress a chance to pass the measure at a special two-day session early next month.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the chief Senate conferee, said yesterday, "I don't see a reopening of the issues in conference. We've compromised as much as we can."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.): "It's time to draw a deep breath."
Collins, who said she had consulted with colleagues and White House staff, said it would take some "commitments or side agreement," perhaps worked out by the White House, to help get over the roadblocks presented by two Republican House chairmen. Their objections led House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to pull from consideration Saturday a compromise bill to reorganize the nation's system for gathering and analyzing intelligence.
"The bill is not dead, but it is in trouble," Collins said, adding she sees only "a small chance it could pass in December."
Hastert withdrew the bill after House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, voiced their strong objections to the legislation at a closed meeting Saturday of Republican House members. The bill would create a director of national intelligence to manage the CIA and 14 other agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, and a national counterterrorism center to coordinate analysis and develop strategic plans to fight terrorists at home and abroad.
Hunter objected to provisions that he said would give the new director authority over Pentagon intelligence collection agencies, saying that would interfere with the defense secretary's ability to support the military in combat. Sensenbrenner added to the bill controversial provisions that would have made it easier to deport immigrant suspects and deny driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Those measures drew criticism from civil liberties groups and were opposed by some senators because they had not been the subject of hearings.
Yesterday, Sensenbrenner said it would be more difficult to get a deal because of personal criticism directed at him and Hunter by senators on Sunday's television talk shows.
"It'll be tougher now because the well got even more poisoned by the senators and their supporters thoroughly criticizing Duncan Hunter and myself by name on the talking head shows yesterday," Sensenbrenner told the Associated Press.
Hunter said yesterday, "It's time to draw a deep breath." He said he expected consultations to begin after the Thanksgiving holiday and before Dec. 6, the date set for members to return to Washington for a vote if a new agreement can be reached.
In the interim, the House chairman said, he believed the Senate conferees should expand their negotiating group to include both Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee. "If they include the Senate defense leadership there is a good chance we can solve this quickly," Hunter said.
Collins reacted negatively to Hunter's proposal, saying, "I don't see that doing any good. We added some of their recommendations and defeated others."
If no agreement is reached in the next two weeks, the debate will move into the new year with a new Congress. Lawmakers said deliberations next year toward a reform bill would be influenced -- and prospects for passage perhaps enhanced -- by the fact that a presidential commission, appointed in February, is due to report on its investigation into the performance of the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Headed by Judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), the group has been looking broadly at intelligence operations. The review includes both the failures to thwart the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and accurately assess Saddam Hussein's arms programs, and successes such as persuading Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to give up his efforts toward weapons of mass destruction and halting the nuclear proliferation black market being operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the presidential commission, said yesterday that the group, whose final report is due in March, would begin formulating its specific recommendations for intelligence reform in January. McCain said many of his tentative findings are in line with those of the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate intelligence committee, which sharply criticized "groupthink" among intelligence agencies when it came to Iraq.
Hunter said yesterday that he expected a reform bill to pass, whether it was in December or next year. Collins said she thought the president's commission "was another source of momentum, but I don't yet want to push it over to next year."