Congressional efforts to restructure the U.S. intelligence system before the election have stalled because of a bitter turf war over control of intelligence spending that pits the Pentagon and its allies on Capitol Hill against advocates of a new national intelligence director, according to lawmakers and staff aides.
President Bush, leaders of the Sept. 11 commission and the families of victims have all called for swift action to address failures in intelligence gathering related to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in misleading information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Members of Congress and their aides say the main holdup now is over who will have final say over spending the billions of dollars a year earmarked for the three Pentagon-based agencies that collect and analyze intelligence.
Yesterday, relatives of Sept. 11 victims and a member of the Sept. 11 commission continued to apply public pressure at a morning news conference at the Capitol, saying Bush and House Republicans will be held accountable if a bill does not pass before Tuesday's election.
Mary Fetchet, whose son Brad died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, said the president could resolve the matter with one phone call to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). She called on the two men, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), to drop their opposition to the Senate version of the legislation.
"History will judge their actions, and we . . . will hold them personally accountable," said Fetchet, a leader of the Family Steering Committee, a group representing victims' families.
The slow-paced negotiations are over competing 500-page bills that were crafted in response to scores of recommendations in a report issued this past summer by the commission. The recommendations include creation of the national intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center. Commission leaders and victims' families favor the Senate bill over the House version, which contains a number of controversial intelligence issues as well as changes to immigration laws.
The major sticking point involves the degree of control the new director would have over determining the budget of Pentagon intelligence-collecting agencies and how that money is spent.
According to people directly involved in the closed-door talks, the fight is over whether the director or the defense secretary "has final control over the spigot of funds" for the National Security Agency (NSA), which intercepts and analyzes electronic messages; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates intelligence satellites; and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which analyzes imagery and makes maps.
Overall intelligence spending -- about $40 billion a year -- is treated as classified information, and the funds are hidden in dozens of Defense Department accounts. The Senate bill would consolidate and declassify the funding for the NSA, NRO and NGA under the control of the new director. That would allow the funds to pass directly through the new director to the agencies.
The House bill would keep those funds classified and continue to hide them in the overall Pentagon budget, meaning money to be spent by the three agencies would have to pass through the defense secretary.
Some skeptical legislators and staff members said the budget authority fight may be a straw man created by a quiet coalition of senior House and Senate members opposed to creating an intelligence director or concerned that their committees will lose clout.
Senior Pentagon and intelligence officials said yesterday that they were surprised by the intensity of the fight over budget control because previous budget disputes between former CIA director George J. Tenet and Rumsfeld were easily settled.
"Tenet never wanted to take on money issues," one former CIA colleague said, adding that "the problem was more in theory than in practice." A senior Rumsfeld aide agreed. "Everyone wants actionable intelligence fast and unfiltered, and sometimes there is professional disagreement on how," the defense official said. "But I can't think of a disagreement over funds and have been told we worked closer [with the CIA] than at any time in history."
After a late-night session Monday and meetings yesterday, the leaders of the House-Senate conference committee reached agreement on giving the intelligence director authority to "determine" the national intelligence budget that includes funds for the NSA, NRO and NGA.
The four legislators -- Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- quit last evening and arranged to meet again this morning. "We are making progress, but it is slow going," Collins said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who has led the House fight inside the conference committee on protecting Pentagon interests in the budget authority controversy, said: "The [national intelligence director] does have full budget authority in the latest House offering."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.