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Intelligence Reform Bill Hits a Wall in Congress

House and Senate members say they can't reach a compromise by Nov. 2 on a spy director's authority and on immigration issues.

October 30, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A sweeping overhaul of the nation's intelligence apparatus, one of the chief recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, appeared headed for collapse Friday as House and Senate negotiators acknowledged they could not agree on a bill before next week's elections.

Negotiators were unable to overcome opposition from the Pentagon and its supporters to creating a powerful intelligence czar, fearing that too much authority over the budgets and personnel of the intelligence agencies would be shifted away from the secretary of Defense.

"The initial hurdle we're facing is the one that intelligence reformists have been facing for the last half-century," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). "How do you allow the Department of Defense to maintain some form of budget authority over the intelligence budget?"

The failure to rapidly reform the nation's collection of intelligence agencies demonstrated the government's difficulty in coming to grips with the fundamental problems that the terrorist attacks laid bare.

"The conferees have gone home, it seems like they are at an impasse, and I think it's tragic that we don't have legislation on the president's desk before the election," said Mary Fetchet, a member of a group of family members who lost relatives in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The group, the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, lobbied for creation of the Sept. 11 commission and has pushed Congress to adopt the panel's recommendations. Fetchet said that her group would continue to press for a bill. "I don't think we can lose hope, but it comes down to what the White House will do" to force an agreement, she said.

Nine days ago, when House and Senate negotiators opened talks to reconcile the legislation each chamber passed, they pledged to try to finish a bill before the elections.

It would take the pressure of elections, supporters of a bill said, to push through an overhaul that required shifting control of part of the intelligence budget from the Pentagon to a new entity. Currently, the Pentagon controls about 80% of the total intelligence budgets, a classified number thought to be around $40 billion per year.

The Senate bill would give a national intelligence director control over much of that budget. The House bill would have the intelligence budgets go through the Defense Department, with the national intelligence director's concurrence.

On Friday, negotiators said they had made little progress in hundreds of hours of talks and remained far apart on key issues.

"The progress we have made has been slow; it is not definitive. We have not reached agreement," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and of the ad hoc House and Senate committee charged with producing a compromise bill.

Hoekstra said he was working on a proposal by House Republicans but acknowledged that it would not meet all the Senate's concerns.

In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, the top four negotiators said they were disappointed with their inability to bridge the gaps. They said they would continue to work toward a bill that could be voted on during the lame duck session scheduled to convene Nov. 16.

Some critics complained that mixed signals from the White House had given the Pentagon and its supporters on Capitol Hill license to work against the reforms, dooming the effort.

Although the White House publicly urged Congress to quickly pass a bill creating a strong national intelligence director, it did not silence the Pentagon's opposition or stop it from lobbying members of Congress.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who co-authored the Senate bill with Lieberman, said it was "very disappointing that we've been unable to negotiate an agreement."

Collins, who has said she feared the legislation would die if it were not completed before the elections, said Friday she was "heartened" by the fact that the House and Senate negotiators agreed to keep trying.

But Congressional staff negotiators said they doubted there was enough common ground to reach agreement.

In addition to their dispute over the power of a national intelligence director, the House and Senate remain far apart on provisions in the House bill that would expand law enforcement powers and the government's power to track, detain and quickly deport illegal immigrants.

It became clear Wednesday that agreement was impossible before the elections, staff members said.

Scott Palmer, chief of staff for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill), told negotiators that a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) last week from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hit House negotiators "like a nuclear bomb."

In the letter, Gen. Richard B. Myers said he thought that the more limited budget authority that the House wanted to grant a national intelligence director would better preserve the link between the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies. Hunter had solicited the letter from Meyers.

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