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Senators Reject Broader Powers for New Spy Chief

A bid to put Defense intelligence units under the aegis of a proposed national director is called 'a bridge too far.'

September 22, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee voted 12 to 5 on Tuesday to reject a proposal to expand the authority of a national intelligence director to include the Defense Intelligence Agency and other Pentagon intelligence operations.

The impetus for reform has gathered steam since the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, in its report in July, found that deep flaws in the nation's intelligence community contributed to the success of the terrorist attacks of 2001. The commission urged swift and broad reform, and Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate vowed to enact some of the commission's 41 recommended changes before the Nov. 2 elections.

But Tuesday's debate in the Governmental Affairs Committee, which was charged by Senate Republican leaders with crafting that chamber's lead intelligence reform bill, revealed deep differences among lawmakers over how much power and independence a national intelligence director should have.

Opening debate on a bill they crafted, Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the committee, said they were reaching for the "golden mean" of reforms. Their bill, if adopted, would for the first time put a national intelligence director in charge of all the nation's nonmilitary intelligence agencies and make him the president's chief intelligence advisor, Collins and Lieberman said.

The two senators envision giving the director hiring, firing and budget control over not only the Central Intelligence Agency but also the National Security Agency, the FBI's office of intelligence, the Homeland Security Department's intelligence directorate, the National Security Agency and other agencies.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and 13 other senators, Republicans and Democrats, told the Governmental Affairs Committee in a letter that true reform required giving a new director daily operational control over all the intelligence agencies, including those in the Defense Department designed to support combat operations.

"Your bill, while a step forward, doesn't go quite far enough," Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a former Intelligence Committee chairman and a signatory to Roberts' letter, told Collins and Lieberman on Tuesday.

But Lieberman argued that Roberts' proposals were so radical that, if adopted by the committee, they might doom the reform effort. The bill he and Collins are proposing, Lieberman said, granted enough power to a new national intelligence director that "some of the agencies most affected, including the Department of Defense, [were] concerned that we are taking too much away from them," but leaves enough power at the Pentagon that it had a reasonable chance of being enacted.

Roberts' proposals, Lieberman said, constituted "a bridge too far" and "may well jeopardize our capacity to get anything substantive done here."

"We're back in a turf fight that has gone on for years," lamented Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who supported the more radical reform proposal. The turf wars, he said, existed both among agencies and among the congressional committees that oversee those agencies.

"We must create a clear line of authority and accountability within the intelligence community and place it in a single person," Shelby said. "If we don't want a strong [national intelligence director], we should say so."

In the 12-5 vote, the committee defeated Specter's attempt to incorporate Roberts' proposed reforms into the Collins-Lieberman bill.

The committee expected to finish the bill today and send it on to the full Senate.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) planned to introduce amendments today to ensure the national intelligence director's independence and objectivity.

"No more slam dunk," Levin said, a reference to the assurance that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet reportedly gave President Bush on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the arsenal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war. "I don't want a more powerful yes-man."

As the Governmental Affairs Committee debated, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger urged another Senate panel to go slow on redesigning the intelligence apparatus.

Kissinger and his colleagues worried "that reform of the magnitude that is being talked about ... should not be rushed through in the last week of the congressional session in the middle of a presidential election campaign," he told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Kissinger also joined with a group of former senators and national security officials from Republican and Democratic administrations in writing a letter that urged congressional caution.

"Racing to implement reforms on an election timetable is precisely the wrong thing to do. Intelligence reform is too complex and too important to undertake at a campaign's breakneck speed," the officials wrote. "Rushing in with solutions before we understand all the problems is a recipe for failure."

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