Congress hurtles toward intelligence overhaul

House, Senate are taking different approaches, but major reorganization is likely either before or shortly after the election.

The mood was chummy as Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., released their intelligence reform bill on the morning of September 15. The two moderates, who serve as chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, exuded teamwork and optimism as they promised speedy Senate action on their proposal -- partisanship be damned. "In a Congress that has become increasingly partisan," Lieberman said, "we are figuring out that our first responsibility is to put the party labels away" for national security.

Less than an hour earlier, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and other Republican leaders laid out the game plan for the House, where action is expected by month's end on an intelligence bill coordinated by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Although DeLay said he welcomed Democratic cooperation and promised not to let "politics get in the way," he also touted "the tremendous amount of work" that the GOP-controlled Congress has already done in the past three years to strengthen national security.

The dueling press conferences made clear that lawmakers, back barely a week from their long summer recess, are intent on quickly implementing recommendations made by the 9/11 commission in late July. At this point, though, the legislative road ahead for the proposals appears uncertain and far from textbook traditional.

Even under normal circumstances, intelligence reform would be a heavy lift for this gridlocked Congress, but now only about six weeks remain before Election Day. And already, the House and Senate are taking strikingly different tacks. Still, it appears that political interests at the White House and on Capitol Hill are aligning behind a major reorganization of federal intelligence agencies, either before or shortly after the election.

As the debate begins to unfold, Hastert is working with senior Republicans to coordinate the work of key House committees in a way that also accommodates the interests of the Bush White House. In the Senate, by contrast, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has designated the bipartisan leaders of the Governmental Affairs Committee to take the lead.

Tensions, to be sure, are high. The proposed intelligence overhaul threatens the turf of many influential House and Senate committees. More broadly, how the debate plays out may well have a significant impact on the presidential and congressional elections.

Both parties are mindful that an election-eve debate two years ago over the creation of the Homeland Security Department became a political football. President Bush successfully cast the Democrats as standing in the way of the bill he had proposed (though Lieberman had proposed it long before). Ultimately, Republicans regained control of the Senate, and Congress approved the new department during a lame-duck session shortly after the 2002 election.

In recent days, DeLay stoked the partisan flames when he told reporters on September 7 that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had "no credibility" on intelligence reform issues and claimed that she and other Democrats are seeking political gain. Pelosi responded by challenging DeLay to a debate. It was all too much for moderate Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a leading advocate of intelligence reform, who said he "almost wept inside" in response to DeLay's comment.

The legislative dynamics became further complicated this week, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence took up Bush's nomination of Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., to be CIA director. With questions swirling about whether Congress should create a post of national intelligence director, the committee's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., noted, "Congressman Goss has been nominated for a position that is not likely to last for much longer."

Bush's Gradual Embrace

Since the 9/11 commission released its unanimous recommendations on July 22, Bush has gradually come to embrace sweeping changes in the nation's intelligence apparatus.

Initially, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card established a task force to examine the commission's proposals. And Hastert, for his part, talked about holding congressional hearings over the next "several months" on the recommendations.

But during the Democratic convention in Boston in late July, presidential nominee John Kerry called for fully implementing the commission's recommendations. House and Senate Republican leaders, sensitive to the political implications of having Congress appear to put its vacation ahead of national security, quickly changed course and scheduled hearings for August. And by August 2 -- just 11 days after the commission released its report, and immediately following the Democratic convention -- Bush announced his support for a national intelligence director and a national counter-terrorism center, the commission's top two recommendations.

The sticking point came over how much budgetary power a national intelligence director would wield, and it appeared that Bush's director would have a somewhat smaller power over the purse than the 9/11 commission had envisioned -- a detail that commissioners emphasized as they made their rounds at Hill hearings. Then, on the eve of the Republican convention in New York City, Bush signed four executive orders on August 27 to bolster intelligence.

Bush went further during a White House meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders on September 8, the day after Congress returned from recess. He announced his support for a new director with "full budget authority" over what is known as the National Foreign Intelligence Program. That's the section of the intelligence budget responsible for strategic intelligence, as opposed to tactical, military intelligence. It represents somewhere around 70 percent of the total intelligence budget, including a few big-ticket items currently in the Pentagon budget, notably the National Security Agency, which handles signals intelligence, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which is responsible for buying spy satellites. And Bush promised to send his own intelligence reform proposal to the Hill in coming days.

"The White House took a giant leap forward," Collins said of Bush's September 8 announcement. "I'm delighted. It greatly enhances our chances of producing a successful bill."

The White House received a stamp of approval from leaders of the 9/11 commission as well. "The president has moved a long way toward the commission's recommendation, and maybe all the way," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who co-chaired the commission with former Republican Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey.

Tale of Two Camps

Meanwhile, the early birds of the intelligence reform debate were the fathers of the 9/11 commission: Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. A few weeks before the 9/11 report was released, the two senators met with Kean and Hamilton to discuss legislation to implement all of the commission's recommendations. On September 7, the day before Bush's high-profile White House announcement, Lieberman and McCain introduced their bill enacting all 41 of the commission's recommendations, as they had promised.

Lieberman said that that bill was more of a marker or a starting point and added that the action now shifts to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "I hope that the large bill has created some momentum in taking the process further than it would otherwise go," Lieberman said.

The intelligence reform legislation that Collins and Lieberman unveiled on September 15 doesn't go quite so far. To help write the bill, in the works since late July, they hired three 9/11 commission staffers to join the Governmental Affairs Committee. A team totaling 20 committee aides, including detailees from the FBI and CIA, drafted the measure. (And Collins has been working into the night in collaboration with the White House -- she found time to call National Journal just before 8 p.m. earlier this week while she awaited a call from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.)

Collins and Lieberman expect to report their bill out of committee during the week of September 20. And Frist has scheduled the legislation for Senate floor consideration during the week of September 27.

The Governmental Affairs Committee's bill does not take on the issue of reorganizing the congressional panels that oversee intelligence issues and appropriations -- a reform that the 9/11 commission report had urged. Instead, Frist has convened a 22-member task force to establish a plan for congressional reform. Collins, a member of that task force, said the task-force proposal could be offered as an amendment to the bill on the Senate floor.

While Senate GOP leaders, at least for now, are letting a committee take the lead, House Republican leaders intend on playing a heavy role in crafting their version of intelligence reform legislation. "This will be a leadership bill," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. "The speaker doesn't have his own ax to grind. He wants to get a bill enacted before the election that is consistent with the views of the White House and the goals of the 9/11 commission."

Both the House Republican proposal, outlined by DeLay and other leaders on September 15, and the Collins-Lieberman bill have at their core two now-familiar proposals drawn from the 9/11 commission report: to establish a national intelligence director, and to launch a national counterterrorism center to house terrorism analysts from a number of intelligence agencies and conduct operational planning.

Hastert has directed his staff to work with senior House GOP committee aides to begin drafting a legislative package. He also has held two lengthy meetings since Labor Day with several committee chairmen who have griped about turf.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and other senior members of that panel are voicing some of the strongest objections. They fear that the legislation could jeopardize Pentagon access to vital military data by shifting control to the new intelligence office. "All of us believe that reform is necessary," said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y. "But many of us -- myself included -- are deeply troubled by the generalization that there is a bright line between strategic and tactical intelligence.... A myriad of tactical weapons are used for strategic purposes."

Such disagreements may explain why DeLay left the door open for passage of an intelligence reform bill during a lame-duck session after the November election. At his September 15 press conference, DeLay said he expects a bill to pass "before Congress adjourns." But when National Journal asked whether he meant before or after the election, DeLay smiled and said under his breath, "You found my loophole," before stepping up to the microphone and saying, "We want final action" before the election.

In the House, where party discipline is strictly enforced, the Republican leadership's intelligence reform bill can be expected to prevail. But the Senate is far less disciplined. Maverick senators -- particularly those who sit on the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence committees -- may want to put their own thumbprints on the Governmental Affairs Committee bill. Floor debate could drag on for weeks.

"On the Senate side, it's a bit more of a wild card," said Frank Cilluffo, a former top White House homeland-security aide who now runs the homeland-security program at George Washington University.

Moreover, the narrow window for action this year may give added leverage to the White House and the House Republican leadership, said Ron Marks, a former CIA officer who has also served as intelligence counsel for the Senate Republican leadership. In a short timeframe, "it is often the last bill out that gets the best response," Marks said.

For her part, Collins said that even if the House leads the way, "it's fine," so long as the bill is in concert with the broad authority already outlined by the White House, because that proposal has moved considerably in the direction that she and Lieberman had hoped for.

Careful What You Wish For

Because Congress is feeling such intense pressure to complete a bill labeled "intelligence reform" before adjourning, some experts like Marks worry that members and their staffs will cut last-minute deals that could have grave consequences. "When you're writing language for these things, you don't always understand the implications of what you've just done," Mars said.

And some longtime observers of the intelligence community, such as Jim Wolbarsht, a management expert who has served on several intelligence and defense review boards, contend that the current focus on only two aspects of the intelligence problem -- the bureaucratic reorganization and the budget authority -- will not produce dramatic changes. Much of the debate appears to be centered on simple solutions and easy fixes, he said, rather than on identifying specific problems in the way intelligence is collected and analyzed and then crafting solutions to resolve them.

In some cases, said Alfred Cumming, former staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, policy makers lack the information necessary to get specific. The 9/11 commission report offered few details on the progress that federal agencies have or have not made since the terrorist attacks. And the field research that the 9/11 commission staff did on agencies such as the FBI is now a year old.

"I've got this quiver full of arrows, so what do I do now?" Cumming asked, in describing the task that would face a new intelligence director with enhanced authority who, nevertheless, must first assess the changes that have been made within the intelligence community since 9/11. "I think it's quite problematic."

Other experts, like Cilluffo, also warn not to expect too much from a single reform, especially in the murky world of intelligence. "We need to recognize it's not always as easy as knocking on bin Laden's cave and saying, 'We want to join,' " he said.

Whatever the post's limitations, should Congress establish a director of national intelligence before leaving town, whoever takes the job will face an enormous early test: the 2006 budget. Negotiations inside the executive branch are already under way to divvy up the next federal budget. And the new director would have ample opportunity in the early days of this post to show the other members of the intelligence community that there's a new sheriff in town. How the White House resolves budget disputes among the intelligence agencies would make clear how large -- or small -- the new director's influence truly would be.