The chairman and the ranking Democratic member of the Senate conferees on the bill to restructure intelligence gathering said yesterday that a House Republican compromise proposal fails to provide the needed authority to a new national intelligence director and called for acceptance of their bipartisan counteroffer.
"The bipartisan counterproposal the Senate conferees unanimously offer the House answers the most critical question raised by the 9/11 commission: Who is in charge of the intelligence community?" Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said yesterday in a statement.
The two were responding to proposals presented late Friday by GOP House conferees as the two sides tried over the weekend to reach agreement on just the first title of the complex intelligence bills that passed earlier.
Key members of the conference are returning to Washington today with the belief that if a compromise is not reached on powers for the national intelligence director (NID) and a National Counterterrorism Center by tomorrow, no bill will be passed before Election Day.
"It would take three days to get Congress back for a vote, so if there is no quick agreement, then it won't happen," a senior Democratic staff member said yesterday.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday in Alamogordo, N.M., that President Bush had asked GOP leaders in the House and Senate to work out differences and produce the legislation. Both House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) "let him know they were working the issue very hard," McClellan said.
The key issue is who will have authority over the budgets of the major Pentagon-based intelligence-collection agencies: the National Security Agency, which collects electronic intelligence; the National Reconnaissance Office, which develops, builds and operates intelligence satellites; and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which processes imagery from satellites.
The Senate wants those budgets to be decided by the national intelligence director, who would also be responsible for their implementation. The House would continue to have the money flow through the defense secretary, and its conferees have not been willing to give the final say over spending to the national intelligence director.
Collins and Lieberman said their proposal "does not change the Defense Department's control over the tactical intelligence assets of the military services." They said the three collection agencies would remain "housed at the Department of Defense and under the day-to-day supervision of the defense secretary."
"The question," the Democratic staff member said, "remains whether the Defense Department can block the NID's budget decisions."
Collins and Lieberman put it a different way: "Who is in charge of the intelligence community?" Their answer is that the House proposal does not "adequately answer that crucial question."
The House and Senate also differ on counterterrorism center powers, on a proposed independent privacy and civil liberties oversight board in the executive branch and on proposals in the House bill covering immigration.