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Senate to Wrestle Over New Intelligence Post's Powers

The bill's authors expect a fight from those who fear a loss of control by the Pentagon. A similar measure in the House is 'weak,' Lieberman says.

September 28, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The drive to restructure the nation's intelligence community intensified Monday with the start of a weeklong Senate debate over how much power a new national intelligence director should have over the government's 15 spy agencies.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- authors of a bill to establish such a director with broad authority over the agencies' budgets -- said they expected stiff opposition from members of the Armed Services and Appropriations committees, who argued that the proposed reforms would centralize too much power at the expense of the Defense Department.

Collins and Lieberman said they also expected challenges from those, particularly on the Intelligence Committee, who believe the proposed director would need more power to overhaul an intelligence bureaucracy shaped during the Cold War.

At issue is the most sweeping proposed reform of the intelligence community in more than half a century, aimed at creating a national director who would serve as the president's chief intelligence advisor and as the official responsible for setting the nation's intelligence priorities and ensuring that they would be carried out.

The Sept. 11 commission, which found major intelligence failures leading up to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, recommended such a position.

But the prospect of such a powerful post has set off a major turf war.

"There is a natural resistance to change in this city," Collins said.

And there is opposition to their bill from senators who say that such important reforms cannot be made in the heat of a presidential race and that they should be put off until next year.

Still, Collins and Lieberman said they remained confident that their bill -- which was unanimously adopted by the Governmental Affairs Committee -- would survive the amendment process largely intact. Collins is the committee's chairwoman and Lieberman its ranking Democrat.

But they expressed concern about a reform bill unveiled Friday by House Republican leaders. That measure, the senators said, would give too little power to a national intelligence director.

"Their language is too weak," Lieberman told reporters. The House bill, he said, does not give the national intelligence director's position "the strength it needs to run the intelligence community.... We are going to have to show some discipline."

Collins noted that while the Senate bill would put the bulk of the intelligence budget -- now controlled by the Pentagon -- in the hands of a national intelligence director, the House bill would leave the budget largely in the hands of the Defense Department. "I believe it must go through the national intelligence director," Collins said.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have said their bill represents the most comprehensive legislative response to the Sept. 11 commission's call for 41 governmental reforms to better protect the nation from terrorism.

John Feehrey, Hastert's spokesman, said the House bill had broader support than the Senate version because it was the result of negotiations between House leaders and committee chairmen.

The House measure, he said, is not weaker than the Senate bill, "just more realistic.... You don't reform the intelligence community without negotiating with the Defense and Intelligence committees."

In the Senate, Feehrey noted, Collins and Lieberman faced opposition from Republicans and Democrats on the Armed Services, Intelligence and Appropriations committees. "You've got some very big lions over there that don't like that bill, and like our bill a lot better," Feehrey said.

In a briefing for reporters Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the next two weeks would be "challenging" as the Senate struggled to finish its intelligence reform bill and to complete other must-pass measures before recessing on Oct. 8 so senators could get home to campaign. Frist said he would be willing to call the Senate back for a lame-duck session to complete an intelligence reform bill, if necessary.

Frist said he and Hastert remained determined to produce a bill for he president to sign before year's end.

"A lot of people have come to me and said, 'Don't go too fast,' " Frist said. To thwart reform, he said, "people who want to slow down and maybe not change at all are going to bring out the big guns."

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