Statesmanship

Posted September 28, 2004 at 4:24pm

If there’s a model of serious legislating on a matter of utmost national interest, it’s the Senate’s handling — so far — of intelligence reform. The Governmental Affairs Committee produced its bill on a bipartisan basis, never breaking into party caucuses. It considered amendments on their merits and unanimously voted out a bill that’s now on the Senate floor.

This is in sharp contrast to the House, where, as usual, Republican leaders drew up their bill without conferring with Democrats and packed it with controversial contents designed to force Democrats into potentially embarrassing votes. Six different panels now will mark up portions of the bill to produce a measure that seems destined for a lengthy House-Senate conference.

We are not taking a position on what ought to be in the final bill, or how Congress might reorganize itself to oversee the intelligence community. We do believe, however, that after 12 separate commissions spanning 50 years have recommended intelligence reform, the latest being the bipartisan 9/11 commission, Congress should pass its reform bill this year rather than delay until next year, when action may not happen for months, if ever.

Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) favor the two basic provisions of the 9/11 commission’s report: the creation of a national intelligence director post with substantial authority over the multiagency U.S. intelligence community, and the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center to coordinate the war on terror. Both the Senate and House bills contain these provisions, although there are significant differences over how much power the NID should wield over personnel and budgeting for the intelligence community. The House bill makes the post weaker compared to the Pentagon than the Senate bill does.

Ironing out these differences and producing a signable bill before the end of the year is a sufficiently difficult task that House leaders ought to consider breaking their proposal into separate measures to avoid delay. If they want to force Democrats to vote on such measures as allowing the federal government to obtain secret warrants for “lone wolf” suspects who aren’t connected to a terrorist group or nation — a provision that civil liberties groups oppose — then they ought to do it in separate legislation that amends the USA Patriot Act.

We’d also hope that, to the best of its ability, Congress avoids letting jurisdictional turf battles delay action. The executive branch reforms pit the House and Senate Intelligence committees against the Armed Services committees. The Congressional oversight reforms recommended by the 9/11 commission pit the Intelligence committees against the Appropriations committees. We hope it’s not too much to expect that members of these committees would think first about how best to defeat the terrorist menace and last about retaining their personal clout. In the face of a dire threat, this is a moment for statesmanship.