A HOUSE-SENATE conference committee today will begin trying to hammer out an intelligence reform package that can pass Congress before the election. We would prefer a more deliberate debate; structural change of this magnitude shouldn't take place this quickly and in the heat of an election campaign. Legitimate questions remain as to whether the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations -- which this bill seeks to implement -- ought to be adopted in their entirety. But if the bill is to move, it should at least be limited to those matters that are of wide consensus. Unfortunately, the House version of the bill contains provisions that are irrelevant to intelligence reform and terrible policy to boot. Senate conferees and President Bush should insist that they be removed from any final bill.
Some of these provisions, as we have argued before, are trivial, election-year goodies to make members look tough on terrorism: enhancing penalties for obstruction of justice in terrorism cases, for example, or adding penalties for terrorist hoaxes. But the bill also contains broad new deportation powers. In some instances it requires deporting people to countries that may torture them, subject only to paper assurances by criminal regimes that they would not do so. It would limit judicial review in deportation cases, greatly expand the categories of people who can be deported, and increase detention authority while cases are pending. Other sections grant new surveillance powers in terrorism cases and expand the definition of criminal support for terrorist groups. These latter ideas may have some merit, but they present complicated choices that have not been adequately considered. All of these provisions are meant to force Democrats to back policy that they would not otherwise tolerate or face election-year trouble for being viewed as soft on al Qaeda.
By contrast, the Senate's process has been a model of bipartisanship. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) kept their bill spare and focused on the issues raised by the commission. They garnered 96 votes for it. The Senate conferees should insist on this approach, and Mr. Bush, who is eager to claim credit for intelligence reform, should back them. The White House endorsed some of the provisions this week but rightly argued against the egregious deportation provisions. That's an important step. The House's reckless election-year grab bag must not become law in a pandering race to the finish.