Long-debated legislation to dramatically reshape the nation's intelligence community collapsed in the House yesterday, as conservative Republicans refused to embrace a compromise because they said it could reduce military control over battlefield intelligence and failed to crack down on illegal immigrants.
The impasse, which caught congressional leaders by surprise, was a blow to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and others who had personally asked House conservatives to accept the measure proposed by House-Senate negotiators early yesterday. It also marked a major setback for the Sept. 11 commission -- whose July report triggered a drive toward overhauling the nation's intelligence operations -- and for many relatives of victims of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The sidetracked bill would have created a director of national intelligence and a counterterrorism center, along with scores of other changes to the nation's approach to gathering intelligence and battling terrorism. The measure would have given the new intelligence chief authority to set priorities for the Central Intelligence Agency and 14 other agencies that gather intelligence, including several at the Defense Department. Hastert refused to call the proposal dead, saying Congress may reconvene Dec. 6 to try again, although lawmakers had planned to close out the 108th Congress this weekend.
Even some key Republicans, however, said prospects appear slim for producing a compromise that the House and Senate can pass. "I don't now see a process for which we can get this done in the next few weeks," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee and the House's top GOP negotiator.
Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the committee's top Democrat, said, "I think those who are vehemently opposed are not going to come around." She said it is up to Bush, Hastert and other GOP leaders to overcome the House conservatives' resistance. If a bill is not enacted by year's end, efforts would have to start anew in the 109th Congress that convenes in January.
Despite the deep disappointment expressed by the measure's proponents, some have noted that Bush has already used executive orders to give the director of central intelligence (DCI) enhanced authority over intelligence budgeting. He has also created a National Counterterrorism Center, a main objective of the bill and the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the chief Senate GOP negotiator, told reporters she was disappointed and surprised that Bush's support of the compromise -- which he expressed via White House statements and telephone calls to a few House Republicans -- was not enough to obtain its passage. "It's surprising," she said, "and what's so frustrating to us is that this bill has such widespread support."
Collins called its collapse a victory for "the forces in favor of the status quo," and said Bush will have to redouble his efforts if the measure is to pass this year.
Hastert said the two chief opponents of the compromise were House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). They persuaded scores of GOP colleagues to join their opposition in a sometimes emotional closed-door meeting of House Republicans. There, in a Capitol basement room, Hastert tried in vain to find enough votes to pass the bill without relying mainly on Democrats, a scenario too embarrassing for Republicans to endure. His failure seemed to stun many lawmakers, and some Democrats denounced the GOP for being unable to deliver a high-profile measure backed by a Republican president.
Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said he was "obviously disappointed" that the House was not given a chance to vote. "There's no question it would have passed easily," he said, because most Democrats and a good number of Republicans would have supported it.
Hunter said he opposed the bill because Senate conferees had removed a White House-drafted section ensuring that tactical or battlefield intelligence agencies would still be primarily directed by the secretary of defense, even as they report to the new national intelligence director. The compromise called for the president to issue "guidelines" on the respective authorities of the director of national intelligence (DNI) and the defense secretary, which Hunter said, "was elevating for the DNI but detrimental to the defense secretary . . . a change that would make war fighters not sure to whom they report and translate into confusion on the battlefield."
Collins called Hunter's argument "utterly without merit," saying the measure actually would improve the real-time satellite intelligence that troops receive in combat. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), another key negotiator, said: "The commander in chief, in the middle of a war, said he needed this bill" to keep the American people and military safe.
Another conferee, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), said: "Clearly, House Republicans never really wanted this bill. . . . Sadly, there are those who are so wedded to the Department of Defense that they, ultimately, ensured the bill's demise."
Sensenbrenner's opposition focused on immigration provisions dropped in the negotiations' final hours. Those provisions, important to many House Republicans who believe illegal immigration is out of control, would have made it easier to deport alien suspects and deny drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, among other things. Collins said immigration questions should be handled in separate legislation in the next Congress.
Democrats ripped into House Republicans for blocking the bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that "their inability to overhaul our intelligence system is a staggering failure." Harman called it "a tragedy for America." Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that "the Republican leadership had a choice between protecting the security of the American people and placating its extreme right wingers. The American people lost, and the extreme right won."
Under the compromise, the new DNI would have set objectives and priorities for the 15 agencies in the intelligence community. The director would have determined budgets and hold operational authority over the national intelligence program, foreign and domestic, which covers accounts for 75 percent of the $40 billion spent annually on intelligence. The remainder would go to the Pentagon for tactical intelligence operations.
The overall intelligence budget was to remain secret and hidden in the Pentagon's budget -- as it does now -- but the funds for even Pentagon-based intelligence collection agencies would be controlled by the DNI. Opposition to this provision from Hunter, supported by a letter from Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was never overcome, and it played a role in yesterday's actions.
The new national intelligence chief's powers in the compromise would have been somewhat greater than those now held by the director of central intelligence, who also heads the CIA. But under the legislation, the DNI would not run the CIA, nor would his deputy.
The measure would have established by law the national counterterrorism center (NCTC), making it the primary agency handling terrorism intelligence and planning strategic operations at home and abroad to be carried out by the CIA, the FBI and Pentagon personnel. The NCTC director would have been a presidential appointee, approved by the Senate and reporting to the president on terrorism operations and to the DNI on terrorism intelligence.
Ironically, some of the increased budget authority in the legislation is already being asserted by Porter J. Goss, the new DCI, under an executive order Bush signed in August. The NCTC is also being set up under another Bush executive order, although not with all of the authority the legislation proposes.
The past two days of negotiations were spent almost entirely on the immigration issues raised by Sensenbrenner, with the Judiciary Committee chairman often accepting proposals, then returning after consulting colleagues with demands for new changes, sources said. At one point, the Senate staff by mistake offered language for one section that had been submitted by Sensenbrenner, and he returned it, saying it was not good enough, according to one participant.