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GOP Bill Adds Police Powers to Intelligence Reforms

September 25, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders introduced legislation Friday that grafts broadened police powers onto a plan to reform the nation's intelligence-gathering agencies.

Like a bill passed earlier by a Senate committee, the proposal adopts recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission for establishing a national intelligence director and a center for counterterrorism.

But it also calls for new police powers that would, among other things, set new federal standards for state driver's licenses and step up inspections of travelers to the U.S.

Democrats and some Republicans said the additions needlessly politicized what had been a remarkably bipartisan effort in the Senate, dimming prospects that a bill would be signed into law before the November elections.

But the House Republican leadership said it was confident a bill would be on President Bush's desk before Nov. 2. They predicted that Democrats would find it hard to vote against reforms that, by centralizing authority over the government's intelligence agencies, would strengthen the nation's ability to defend itself against terrorists.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the bill would go through half a dozen committees next week on its way to the House floor the following week.

The House bill would give an intelligence director and a counterterrorism center less power than the bill passed Wednesday by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. In that respect, the House leadership more closely reflected the White House vision of the new director and center than did the Senate or the Sept. 11 commission.

Under the House bill, like the Senate bill, the director would have supervisory authority over the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the other of the nation's 15 spy agencies that do not contribute directly to fighting wars. But the director's authority would not be as broad in the House approach. He would have less power to set agency budgets, and he would be less the initiator of top agency appointments than someone who reacts to the choices of others.

But it was the law enforcement aspects of the 335-page House bill that quickly proved the most controversial.

The bill would:

* Make it easier to deport aliens who help or join terrorist groups.

* Give the government warrant powers to help track "lone wolf" terrorists unconnected to terrorist groups.

* Set minimal federal standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identity cards.

* Increase the number of border patrol agents and immigration and customs agents.

* Expand U.S. agents' inspection of travelers to the United States at foreign airports.

* Establish a national database for government agencies to more easily share information on citizens.

Some of these measures were included in a Justice Department memo leaked last year and dubbed "Patriot Act II" by critics who said they would further erode civil liberties that were weakened by the Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Republicans said they were trying to respond to the bulk of the 41 reforms urged by the Sept. 11 commission in its final report, which delivered a scathing indictment of failures of the intelligence community.

"Our bill is the most comprehensive effort yet introduced that deals with the problems uncovered by the 9/11 commission," Hastert told reporters.

But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the bill had "complicated the process." Harman said she objected to the bill's effort to curb the authority of the national intelligence director and the counterterrorism center and to its immigration provisions. Beyond its proposals for intelligence reform, she said, the bill had "a lot of problems."

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who serves on the House Intelligence Committee and who has opposed creation of a national intelligence director, said he too was unhappy with a draft he saw of the House bill Thursday.

"The bill that I saw ... I don't intend to support," LaHood said. "What will end up happening is we'll pass something in the House that will be totally different than the Senate, then have the huge train wreck that we always have here in trying to reconcile the two."

He said he did not believe it would be possible to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a bill before Congress adjourned in mid-October for the November elections.

Once the bill was introduced, ebullient Republicans said it would be hard for Democrats to oppose measures aimed at preventing future domestic attacks, observed John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman.

"This clarifies the law so that you can actually get the terrorists," Feehery said. "Would any Democrat want to vote against that?"

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) criticized the bill.

"Instead of acting in a bipartisan manner, the Republican leadership is introducing a bill, written behind closed doors, that attempts to score partisan points and goes far outside the recommendations of the 9/11 commission," she said in a statement. "Unbelievably, the Republicans claim to have introduced a bipartisan bill, as Senate leaders have done. It is simply not true."

Charlie Mitchell, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "The ACLU is with the Henry Kissingers" -- a reference to a plea made by the former secretary of State this week to go slowly on reform.

"We agree that there was some need for intelligence reform," Mitchell said. "But at this point, with the House introducing a bill that is completely full of political firebombs, there is no chance to have good intelligence reform done with two weeks left in the session. It is more important to get this done right than to get this done fast."

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