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Senate Gets Legislation on Sept. 11 Panel's Reforms

September 08, 2004|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Republican and Democratic senators who proposed establishing the independent Sept. 11 commission introduced legislation Tuesday to implement the commission's suggested reforms.

The proposed legislation -- one of several measures expected to address intelligence reform -- adheres closely to the 41 recommendations of the commission, which released its report in late July.

The legislation by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) contains two major reforms: creation of a national intelligence director to oversee the government's 15 intelligence agencies and establishment of a national counterterrorism center to act as a clearinghouse for intelligence related to terrorism.

Since the Sept. 11 commission's report was released, Congress has held more than a dozen hearings on the proposals, even during its summer recess.

"Nothing else we have to do is more important than getting the most important parts of this commission proposal adopted," Lieberman said at a news conference.

Congress returned to session Tuesday, and the two Senate sponsors, joined by Senate supporters and the measure's House co-sponsors, urged their colleagues to vote on the legislation by the end of the month.

"The greatest single thing that those of us here today can bring to this cause is a sense of urgency," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).

"I am worried that the wake-up call that America received on 9/11 may not be answered if we wait until after November the 2nd and the country moves on to other things," Bayh said. "Momentum is important. Time is not on our side."

McCain agreed, sending an early message that Capitol Hill should consider the legislation quickly.

"This is not an obscure, complex piece of legislation," McCain said. "I can't believe it would require a long, drawn-out conference."

The McCain-Lieberman proposal was endorsed by the Sept. 11 commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, and vice chairman, former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat. Both have vowed to continue pressing the issue beyond last month's official expiration date for the panel's work.

"What haunted us was the possibility that we would make recommendations to make the American people safer, and like other commissions, nobody would do anything about them," Kean said, praising the McCain-Lieberman bill. "So this is our dream."

As many as half a dozen intelligence reform proposals are circulating or being drafted in Congress. Among them is a measure planned by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which holds hearings today that will include testimony from acting CIA Director John McLaughlin and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Collins said she planned to offer a bill with Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on her committee. That bill is likely to focus on the panel's recommendations for an intelligence director and a counterterrorism center.

Another proposal, by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would break the CIA into several parts. Roberts' panel met Tuesday.

The senators and House sponsors of the measure offered Tuesday acknowledged that their legislation was unlikely to pass as written. But they said it was important to introduce a bill that was as close as possible to the commission's original recommendations for the sake of the debate.

"We wanted to make sure it's on the table and is part of that debate," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), one of the bill's House sponsors. "Obviously, it's going to be a give-and-take in the House."

Lieberman said the main departure from the commission's recommendations in his bill was a provision to create a stand-alone national intelligence authority, composed of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies and overseen by the national intelligence director.

The commission proposal had suggested that the national intelligence director be located inside the White House to be closer to the president. But critics said a White House office would create too many opportunities for improper political influence.

The McCain-Lieberman bill would give the national intelligence director full budgetary and personnel authority, a step the sponsors said was important to ensure that the director would have full control over the intelligence agencies. The senators said the changes contained in presidential executive orders last month were a good first step but did not go far enough in giving the intelligence director authority.

"The president has taken a number of steps by executive order. We applaud those steps that the president has taken," McCain said.

"I think he has probably reached about the limits of his authority to get things done by executive order."

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