The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to revamp the structure of the nation's intelligence community by creating a national intelligence director, a counterterrorism center and other agencies in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The bill calls for the most dramatic changes to the intelligence community in half a century, and would give the new director authority to coordinate the activities and spending of the CIA and several other intelligence agencies throughout the government. It would also declassify the amount of money the government spends on intelligence and would create a civil liberties board to safeguard privacy and civil rights as the government steps up anti-terrorism activities.
The legislation, passed by a 96 to 2 vote, contains many of the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. But a confrontation looms with the House, whose leaders have drafted a bill with many provisions not in the Senate measure.
The vote underscores the influence of the 10-member commission that studied the government's response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The panel's report, released in July, became a bestseller and spurred Congress and the White House to rethink an intelligence structure built mainly to address Cold War threats.
"This is an historic vote and an historic day," the bill's chief sponsors, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), said in a statement.
The only nay votes were cast by Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.), who said Congress was moving too rapidly on so complex a matter.
The Senate bill sharply contrasts with the bill working its way through the House, where the issue has been tightly controlled by GOP leaders. Although senators acclaimed their bipartisan accomplishment, their bill must be reconciled with the one in the House. The House bill, scheduled to reach the floor today or Friday, was written entirely by Republicans and differs in many respects from the Senate bill.
It largely tracks the Senate bill in creating an intelligence director and counterterrorism center. But the House measure contains other provisions likely to cause strenuous debate. One, which would boost law-enforcement and immigration-control powers, has been criticized by civil liberties groups and is opposed by some leading senators. One of the most controversial provisions would make it easier for the government to deport foreign suspects to nations where they might be tortured.
The Sept. 11 commission's chairman and vice chairman -- former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R) and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) -- issued a statement calling the Senate bill "a giant step forward in implementing the recommendations of the 9-11 commission. We look forward to House passage of a counterpart measure, a quick [House-Senate] conference and a good bill on the desk of the president later this month."
One of the commission's major recommendations -- that Congress revamp the way it oversees intelligence operations -- is essentially ignored in the House and Senate bills. Although House leaders have signaled they will not address the issue this year, the Senate last night turned to the question, which promises to be contentious. Senate leaders are pressing for changes in the intelligence committee's structure that would meet some, but not all, of the commission's recommendations.
House GOP leaders, meanwhile, seemed to sharpen their objections to the Collins-Lieberman bill and vigorously defended their proposals to beef up border controls and make it easier to track or deport foreign suspects. At a second news conference in as many days that included no Democrats, House Republicans sternly challenged senators or other critics to explain why a single item in their bill should be changed.
"Democrats . . . are trying to rip out the provisions that would make Americans safe," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said.
Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the House intelligence committee's ranking Democrat, questioned whether DeLay and his fellow leaders can muster enough Republican votes to pass their bill unless items such as the one she called "the outsourcing of torture" are dropped.
"I think some of the Republicans want a train wreck," she told reporters, "and some of them want a least-common-denominator bill, and maybe some of them want something that would actually help the country."
House Democrats were angry that the Rules Committee, which determines the shape of the bill that will reach the floor, deleted several Democratic-backed amendments that committees had added last week. One would have created a civil liberties board similar to the one in the Senate bill.
In an interview, Kean said he believes that the House and Senate can resolve their differences before the Nov. 2 election. He said he believes that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) "wants a good bill to go to the conference" and result in a measure that President Bush can sign.
During the two weeks of debate, senators blocked efforts to give the national intelligence director almost total budget and personnel authority over agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency, which are housed in the Department of Defense. The bill would allow the intelligence director to set many budget priorities for such agencies, but the Defense Department would distribute the funds.
Senators accepted an amendment, offered by John W. Warner (R-Va.), to allow the defense secretary -- not the intelligence director, as the Sept. 11 commission proposed -- to continue nominating the heads of the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and similar agencies. The secretary could forward the nominations to the president even if the intelligence director objected, although the objection would have to be formally noted.