Congressional leaders said yesterday the House and Senate will vote in a few weeks on recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission, but the two chambers appear at odds on some key issues, and several recommendations appear in jeopardy.
The Pentagon would lose much of its control over satellite-based intelligence gathering systems, and a new national intelligence director would have broad powers to coordinate various agencies under plans gaining momentum in Congress.
But the House and Senate appear far from agreeing to overhaul their own oversight operations, and some House staffers predicted that any significant reconsideration of Congress's role in intelligence and anti-terrorism matters will wait until next year, if it happens at all.
The Sept. 11 commission said in its final report that a proposed reorganization of the nation's intelligence and security operations "will not work" without changes in congressional oversight.
With the presidential and congressional elections less than eight weeks away, lawmakers feel pressure to show voters they are taking action to combat terrorism before they adjourn next month. House and Senate leaders held news conferences yesterday to outline their plans.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) unveiled a bill to rearrange the CIA and other intelligence agencies, largely along the lines the commission recommended.
"Our country has made much progress in the last three years in strengthening our defenses against terrorism. But we believe it is essential that we build on that progress by enacting the most sweeping and significant intelligence reforms in decades," Collins said.
The bill includes two major proposals that appear to have extensive support: One would create a national intelligence director with broad budgetary and policy-setting powers over most of the government's intelligence-related agencies. The other would create a national counterterrorism center to coordinate intelligence efforts "and conduct joint operational planning" among the agencies, Collins said. The bill also calls for a "civil liberties board," recommended by the commission, to ensure that anti-terrorism efforts do not trample constitutional rights.
The national intelligence director would control the budgets of the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Homeland Security Department's intelligence directorate, the FBI's intelligence arm, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The Pentagon would retain control over the Defense Intelligence Agency. Collins and Lieberman said commanders and troops in the field would suffer no interference in their access to timely intelligence.
The Defense Department controls about 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion spent annually on intelligence. Control over most of the budget would switch to the national intelligence director, Lieberman said.
The Collins-Lieberman bill does not address congressional oversight changes, which a 22-member Senate task force is weighing.
The House approach is significantly different, with Democrats playing a much smaller role than their Senate counterparts. GOP leaders said six committee chairmen will forward their proposals to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Friday. The committees will draft legislation next week, and the House will vote the week of Sept. 27.
House leaders said the Sept. 11 commission's findings are guiding them, but they signaled that they do not feel bound by the 10-member panel's precise proposals.
"In embracing the spirit of the 9/11 commission's report, we don't necessarily need to embrace the specifics of every recommendation," Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters. "I've heard 10 hours is the [time] spent by the commission in actually coming up with these recommendations."
GOP lawmakers and aides said there is significant resistance to the commission's most ambitious recommendations for overhauling congressional oversight: giving the intelligence committees authorizing and appropriating powers; creating a single House-Senate intelligence panel; and making intelligence committee membership permanent rather than term-limited.
Several members and aides said that Congress is likely to make modest changes in its approach to intelligence oversight before the Nov. 2 elections, but that there is not enough time to build a consensus for the commission's further-reaching suggestions.
Among the provisions likely to emerge in a House bill, according to a well-placed Republican aide, are increased funding for detecting explosives at airports and for biometric screening of airport employees and passengers; civil liability protection for first responders who cross state lines after terrorist attacks; calls for standardized translations of foreign names, so that, for example, Osama bin Laden would not be rendered "Usama"; and increased criminal penalties for hoaxes about terrorist acts or deaths of U.S. troops.
Sept. 11 panel members have said their recommendations can be improved upon but have cautioned against ignoring major components.
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean (R) and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D) praised the Collins and Lieberman proposal as "an important first step" in achieving reform. "Their bill appears to incorporate some of the most important structural recommendations contained in our report," their statement said.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.