WASHINGTON - The House last night passed the first major reform of intelligence operations in half a century, clearing the way for Senate passage today and giving the White House a major political victory.
At President Bush's urging, on the 63rd anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and three years and nearly three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, the House by a vote of 336-75 approved a massive, 600-plus-page bill that will change the way intelligence is collected and disseminated. Backers said it will reorganize intelligence from Cold War-era demands to those of the age of terrorism.
It creates a director of national intelligence and counter-terrorism centers, prompting some lawmakers to say that the country will now be far safer and critics to say the new law will be a bureaucratic shell game based on rearranging flow charts.
During seven weeks of spirited debate, with many conservative members arguing that new curbs on political asylum and national driver's license standards were needed, the bill was unanimously endorsed by the bipartisan members of the 9/11 commission, which made many of the recommendations encompassed in the bill.
The 9/11 commission said the biggest impediment to "connecting the dots" that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks was the system-wide resistance to information sharing. Commission members said the new, government-wide approach to information sharing embodied in the bill will be a major improvement.
Mr. Bush originally opposed the creation of the commission, which families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had demanded. Then he opposed giving the proposed national intelligence director budget authority over 15 intelligence agencies and hiring, firing, and personnel transfer authority. Mr. Bush dropped his opposition before the November elections and the House and Senate passed different versions by wide margins.
When the two bodies reconciled their versions, Mr. Bush said he supported the compromise measure despite opposition from some conservative Republicans and some family members of 9/11 victims who believe the conference measure dropped too many immigration controls.
Many Republicans began worrying that if Mr. Bush did not prevail on this issue after his re-election, with Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, his political clout would be damaged. In the last four days, Vice President Dick Cheney and Republicans on Capitol Hill labored feverishly to prevent the President from being embarrassed if the bill had died.
However, until Monday it was not certain that House speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.) would permit a vote on the bill.
Some members of his party worried that a new intelligence czar might keep spy satellites for civilian use instead of being used for real-time battlefield intelligence the military says it must have. Language was inserted Monday to prevent the Pentagon from losing its authority over satellites when soldiers might be jeopardized.
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), a key Senate negotiator, said the language was basically to "give a little extra comfort" to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who was concerned that the bill might interfere with the military chain of command where intelligence is concerned. The new language directs the President to come up with regulations to "respect" the chain of command so that the military does not "abrogate" its control over access to battlefield intelligence.
But another contentious argument did not prevail. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) lost his demand that national driver's license standards be adopted to prevent illegal aliens from getting licenses and that tougher rules on immigration be added, including rules to make it easier to deport illegal aliens.
Mr. Sensenbrenner had argued that the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 had a total of 63 driver's licenses that helped them with their plotting and said the bill that passed last night will not make the country safer.
"This is not reform," he said. "It sounds like recipe for disaster, the same disaster that occurred on 9/11." He added, "How can we face the families and say while we might have done more, the legislative hurdles were just too high? I will not rest until these [immigration and driver's license] provisions are enacted into law."
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R., Mich.) said the Republican leadership has pledged to deal with Mr. Sensenbrenner's concerns when the new Congress convenes next month. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said some of the reforms conservative Republicans want are "egregious" and expressed disappointment the new Congress will spend time debating them all over again.
Families of the 9/11 victims were split, some saying passage was a tribute to their loved ones, and others bitterly insisting the legislation is a "fig leaf" that will make people think they are safe when they are not.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R., Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said, "We are creating another huge bureaucracy that will not prevent another 9/11. We are fooling ourselves. We are creating a monster. We are going to have another terrorist attack."
Rep. Chris Shays (R., Conn.) said in passionate defense of the new intelligence bill that it should have been passed long ago and denied that it was not rushed through Congress. "The truth is time ran out on 9/1l. We're on borrowed time. Sept. 11 was a wake-up call.''
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