THE HOUSE OF Representatives' version of intelligence reform might be dismissed as an election-year stunt were it not so dangerous. The bill does not differ from the Senate's version merely on how much to empower a new director of national intelligence, a subject about which reasonable minds can differ. It also burdens the entire project with a grab bag of controversial changes in security policy. Some provisions -- criminalizing terrorist hoaxes, enhancing penalties for obstruction of justice in terrorism cases -- are relatively insignificant election-year posturing. But many, like the bill's broad new deportation powers, are egregious. One section would relax restrictions on deporting people who may face torture at home, in violation of an international treaty to which this country is a party. Other sections, authorizing new surveillance powers in terrorism cases and changing the definition of criminal support for terrorist groups, may have merit but involve complex and highly controversial policy changes that warrant debate.
The goal here is not subtle, nor does the Republican leadership even make a pretense of concealing it. The goal is to force Democrats either to accept policy they would otherwise oppose or to turn against the bill itself -- thereby letting Republicans brand them as weak on terrorism, as they did with legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security during congressional elections two years ago. "The Democrats got spanked hard on homeland security," said a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "I don't think they want to get spanked again."
If the result of this cynical move were somehow to slow down the intelligence reform train, some good might still come of it. The momentum behind the bill and the haste with which it is being enacted are inconsistent with reasoned debate and deliberation. But the hundreds of pages of extraneous legislation in the House bill will not focus attention on the key issues -- whether intelligence reform as recommended by the Sept. 11 commission will make Americans safer and what the cost, if any, will be to American liberty. They can only distract attention further.
What's more, there is considerable danger that some of these provisions will become law. The House is due to take up the intelligence reform bill this week and is likely to pass it with many of the most offensive provisions intact. It will then go to a House-Senate conference committee to be reconciled with a far sparer, bipartisan Senate version. Anything can happen there. Even for a House Republican leadership eager to make Democrats squirm on the campaign trail, playing politics with intelligence reform should not be worth the potential damage.