With House-Senate negotiators scheduled today to start resolving major differences in two bills to restructure the nation's intelligence community, the White House has criticized key portions of each plan and left some lawmakers wondering how they can meet a self-imposed deadline of finishing the work before the Nov. 2 election.
In a 10-page letter issued shortly before midnight Monday, the White House embraced the Senate's version of the two main provisions of both bills: establishing a new National Counterterrorism Center and appointing a national intelligence director to better coordinate intelligence work among government agencies. The administration letter sharply criticized the House bill for allowing "expedited deportations" of foreign suspects without judicial review, but it endorsed other House proposals to make it easier to detain or deport illegal immigrants. The White House opposed the Senate's call for a civil liberties board and the declassification of the amount of money spent on intelligence operations.
"It's hard to see how it gets resolved," a well-placed Senate aide said after conferring with colleagues reviewing the House and Senate differences on scores of items spread across hundreds of pages in the two bills.
Leaders of the negotiating conference committee diplomatically praised the White House letter yesterday while acknowledging the two chambers remain far apart.
The letter "overall is a hopeful sign in the midst of a reality that hasn't shown much progress," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "The [conference] members have to step in now and break the ice. . . . If we let it wait until after the election . . . we lose the momentum."
Former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission that in July called for major revisions to the nation's intelligence structure and practices, said the letter "definitively states the White House position" and shows that President Bush "wants to move forward. It gives impetus to movement of the bill."
The letter, signed by Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, says the administration "supports the strong budget authority" given the national intelligence director in the Senate bill, which would give the new chief power to set spending at the CIA and in intelligence agencies elsewhere in the government. The House bill, crafted almost entirely by Republicans, would give the Pentagon a larger role in planning and executing the budgets for intelligence agencies, several of which are housed in the Defense Department.
A major element of the Senate bill, which withstood extensive criticism during debates, is the establishment of an independent oversight board that would be charged with safeguarding Americans' civil liberties and privacy concerns as a check on new governmental power to collect information on U.S. citizens at home and abroad. The White House said the provision is unnecessary because Bush has created a similar mechanism in the executive branch.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who heads the Senate conferees and chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee, said yesterday that creating an independent civil liberties board "is essential to maintaining bipartisan support for the bill." It was a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission, she noted, and drew support from such diverse groups as the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union. Saying she was surprised the White House opposed it, Collins suggested a compromise might be possible, given that the president had embraced a somewhat similar panel.
The White House also wants to drop a Senate provision that would bar the national intelligence director and his or her staff from being located at the CIA's Langley headquarters or any other facility that houses an intelligence agency. The idea is to keep the new leader of the intelligence community independent of any component agency. Some in the intelligence community considered the idea naive, saying it would force the new intelligence director to create his or her own administrative, security and transportation infrastructure when one already exists at the George Bush Center for Intelligence, named after the president's father.
Some of the biggest differences between the House and Senate bills involve immigration. Unlike the Senate, the House has proposed many ways to make it easier for federal agents to track, deport or indefinitely detain foreigners suspected of terrorist connections.
The White House "strongly opposes" a House provision that would empower agents to quickly deport illegal immigrants without a judge's review if they have been in the United States less than five years. Current law makes the cutoff two years. Immigrant groups, including key voting blocks of Hispanics in some states, had objected to the provision.
But the White House embraced other House provisions absent from the Senate bill. One would allow the secretary of homeland security to detain illegal immigrants indefinitely, eliminating their right of a habeas corpus review by a judge. Another provision would allow the government to immediately deport someone whose visa has been revoked.
The White House wants language, which neither bill contains, stressing that department heads such as the defense secretary remain in charge of their agencies, and that the president's Office of Management and Budget retain its budgetary authority. Described as a "preservation of authority and accountability" for the executive branch agencies, it is expected to be accepted by the conferees.