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Battle Over Spy Bill Hinges on Panel Leaders

Senate's military committee chairmen work to keep Pentagon authority under a new intelligence director. Critics see a turf fight.

September 29, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The powerful chairmen of the congressional committees that oversee the military have emerged this week as the most significant obstacles to the push on Capitol Hill for a fundamental restructuring of the nation's intelligence community.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), fighting to preserve the Pentagon's grip on as many intelligence agencies and assets as possible, are expected to offer amendments to an intelligence bill on the Senate floor this week that would curb the powers of a proposed new national intelligence director.

The senators have warned that Congress, in its rush to address flaws in the intelligence system highlighted by the Sept. 11 commission, may end up creating a new layer of bureaucracy that could hurt the Pentagon's ability to fight wars. But critics say it is a desire to protect their committees' turf that has spurred the senators to battle the growing number of Democrats and Republicans who worry they could pay a political price in the November elections if they fail to act quickly on the recommendations of the bipartisan commission.

"There is a very, very heavy overtone of the turf battle which is present here this afternoon," an exasperated Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said in a testy exchange with Warner on the Senate floor. The two clashed over an amendment Specter offered that would give even more power to a national intelligence director than called for in the Senate bill. Warner protested that it would damage the Pentagon's access to intelligence. A vote on Specter's amendment is expected today.

Warner responded that he and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, might "jointly put in some amendments tomorrow ... not in the manner of a turf battle.... I personally am striving to do what's best for this country and to make the intelligence system stronger."

One senior Senate aide, however, said the Armed Services chairman was bound to look askance at any effort to remove Pentagon budgetary authority over intelligence agencies. The Pentagon now controls 80% of the estimated $40-billion intelligence budget.

"The committee draws its authority from its responsibilities over the Pentagon," said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "So if the Pentagon loses authority, the committee loses authority."

The 77-year-old Warner, who served as a sailor in World War II and a Marine in the Korean War before becoming secretary of the Navy, used his military record as a springboard for becoming one of the Senate's most respected military authorities after he entered the Senate in 1979.

He recently angered some Republican colleagues by aggressively investigating abuses at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq. Over the years, Warner has bucked the party on other issues, although he has always fought for strong military budgets.

The Senate bill being debated this week would shift from the Pentagon to the national intelligence director authority over the budgets of three intelligence agencies: the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Agency and the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency.

The bill's supporters say it would put strategic intelligence agencies and personnel in the hands of the national intelligence director while leaving the Pentagon in charge of strictly battlefield-related intelligence.

Opponents say such a division is impossible to achieve.

John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy secretary of defense, said Warner, Stevens and Levin opposed that switch because they understood there was no clear-cut division between strategic and tactical intelligence.

"These are the most senior members in the Senate, and they have worked through security and intelligence matters their entire careers," Hamre said. He said the senators worried that the crucial link between military leaders and tactical intelligence would be "ruptured" by bureaucratic restructuring.

The White House, in a policy statement issued Tuesday, said it supported passage of the Senate bill with several reservations. It warned that the legislation would create a "cumbersome bureaucracy."

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the authors of the Senate bill, sought to build support for it Tuesday with a news conference.

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