Members of Congress are sharply divided over how fast to proceed in drafting legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence services -- torn between political demands for speed and caution arising from the complexity of their task.
They also appear split over some of the major recommendations that the national commission charged with investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, made in its 567-page report last month, triggering the extraordinary mid-summer legislative effort. Those proposals -- especially ones that seek a far-reaching realignment of intelligence responsibilities -- could prompt a serious turf war among powerful Washington departments and agencies as well as congressional committees charged with overseeing them.
Over the last 30 years there have been eight unsuccessful efforts to reorganize intelligence operations -- including two recent ones from a presidential commission chaired by retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who is also chairman of President Bush's own Foreign Intelligence Board, and the joint House-Senate panel that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.
Skeptics caution against unintended consequences that could impede rather than strengthen intelligence efforts. But the commission has been fierce in its lobbying for approval of all its recommendations, and its stature, reinforced by broad acclaim for its work and the support of Sept. 11 victims' families, has generated election-year pressure on Capitol Hill.
House and Senate leaders remain committed to producing legislation by the end of September, although they have been less clear about whether they will push for final passage before the Nov. 2 elections or later, perhaps in a post-election "lame duck" session.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which is charged with drafting the Senate version of the bill, has warned against both delay and excessive haste but said in an interview last week that she believes legislation can be passed before the elections. Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) said in a separate interview that he believes a bill could be drafted in time for final action before Congress adjourns in October. Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and Democrats in both chambers are also pushing for speedy action.
But influential lawmakers from both parties, backed by current and former government officials, are warning against haste inspired by presidential election politics and by lawmakers' fears of being blamed for inaction, especially if terrorists strike before the elections.
"We must not allow false urgency dictated by the political calendar to overtake the need for serious reform" and "rush haphazardly through what may be the most complicated and significant government reorganization since World War II," Senate intelligence committee member Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said in an op-ed column in The Washington Post last Tuesday.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) sounded a similar warning the next day to the Governmental Affairs Committee, saying, "We have to make sure we are driven more by 9/11 than by 11/2."
In the House, the dispute was framed in dramatic fashion last week when Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, urged caution, while Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the panel's ranking Democrat, accused the committee of moving too slowly.
House and Senate committees began holding hearings just days after the Sept. 11 commission issued its report, which called for prompt action on restructuring both intelligence operations within the executive branch and what it called "dysfunctional" oversight by Congress.
The report called for creation of a new post of national intelligence director within the president's office, with budgetary and hiring-and-firing authority over 15 agencies responsible for U.S. intelligence operations, including the CIA as well as several agencies in the Defense Department. The report also urged establishment of a national counterterrorism center, also in the president's office, to oversee anti-terrorist intelligence.
For Congress, it proposed a major strengthening of intelligence committees, with new powers to determine policy and funding, along with consolidation of homeland security responsibilities in permanent committees. These proposals would replace the hodgepodge of committees and subcommittees now responsible for these areas, which often results in delay and deadlock. But they could also trespass on the carefully guarded turf of powerful committees, such as Armed Services and Appropriations.
Bush endorsed these proposals, with significant reservations. He opposes putting the new director in the president's office and said the director should play a coordinating -- but not controlling -- role in apportioning funding for intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, several bills have already been introduced reflecting varying approaches to the reorganization, including separate drafts from Goss and Harman that would invest the job with budgetary authority but differ on who would head the intelligence community.
Although it is too early to tell what Congress will do on these issues, lawmakers say there appears to be considerable support for giving the director broad budgetary authority but, unlike the commission's recommendation, removing the position from the executive office of the president.
But there are also important unresolved questions, such as how the director could assume such a broad array of new responsibilities, what the director's relationship to the defense secretary would be and who would brief the president on intelligence matters. "There are a lot of questions, serious questions," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Despite their rush to address executive-branch reorganization, neither house has taken any concrete steps to deal with the proposals for Congress. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said they will create a bipartisan task force to deal with the issue but have yet to appoint it. House GOP leaders may not move on congressional reorganization until after the elections, according to Stuart Roy, spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Some argue that congressional changes cannot be made intelligently until executive-branch reforms are nailed down, whereas others say the issues must go together to assure effective oversight. Still others point to the turf issues. "It's extraordinarily difficult to reorganize the executive branch, but that is going to be a piece of cake compared to reorganizing Congress," Collins said.
As the election approaches, many lawmakers are worried that the whole debate could get subsumed by politics. While the Senate has been working on a bipartisan basis, House GOP leaders acted unilaterally in laying out the timetable for action, and Democrats responded by scheduling a special party caucus for Tuesday to consider the proposals.
The political implications deepened earlier this month when Kerry, after endorsing the commission's recommendations in their entirety, urged Bush to call Congress back into session to consider them this month. Bush rejected the proposal but urged action in September.
House Republican leaders are considering breaking the proposals into several packages, starting with a highly symbolic installment to be passed by Sept. 11 and leaving the most controversial proposals for later. One step they could take quickly would be to establish the proposed counterterrorism center by merging the CIA's Terrorist Threat Integration Center and Counterterrorist Center. Those units, along with a portion of the FBI's Counterterrorism Center, are already working together.
But others, including key senators and government officials, oppose a piecemeal approach. "If we're going to do this, we should do this in one piece for the well-being of the people that do the work," J. Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, told the House intelligence committee last week.