Intelligence Talks Advance, Slowly

Posted November 17, 2004 at 6:09pm

Negotiators on a bill to implement the 9/11 commission’s recommendations inched closer Wednesday to reaching a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on how to restructure the nation’s intelligence community.

Still, as of press time Wednesday, talks appeared so precarious that it was not clear whether an agreement would be forthcoming last night, today, or at all. And Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said it was “going to be a long night” as she ran into the Senate to vote at 6 p.m. But Members and aides warned that a deal must be reached today or the bill would likely not be passed this year.

“We’re down to the short strokes here,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a Senate conferee. “We’ve got to get something done certainly in the next 24 hours.”

The intelligence bill has alternately been declared dead and revived over the period of weeks before and after the Nov. 2 election.

Negotiators had originally aimed to present a conference report to Congress before Election Day. Now they are racing to come to agreement before the 108th Congress adjourns — likely late this week or early next week.

The rush under way owes to the fact that all agreements reached this year will be moot at the start of the 109th Congress in January.

Members said the negotiations took on new life this week as they returned for the lame-duck session and President Bush personally weighed in with a number of Members who have been identified as holding up action on the measure.

“There are loose pieces to all of it,” Senate Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said of the ongoing negotiations.

Indeed, it appeared that House and Senate conferees have tentatively agreed on a central tenet of the measure — how much budget and personnel authority to give to the newly created national intelligence director — but Members cautioned that continuing disagreements over controversial, House-backed provisions on immigration and law enforcement still threatened to scuttle the bill.

“We’ve got a basic agreement on core elements,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a Senate conferee. “It’s two steps forward and one step back.”

Durbin said he had been called in to help Senate conferees negotiate on the House’s immigration and law enforcement provisions, because “we thought we had narrowed this down, but this morning, [House Republicans] opened up a lot more issues that we thought were closed.”

House GOP conferees are renewing their push for controversial provisions to more easily deport foreigners, to clandestinely monitor suspected terrorists, to establish standards for drivers’ licenses nationwide, and to prohibit certain types of identification cards, among other things.

However, both Republican and Democratic Senate conferees have repeatedly said the provisions do not belong on a bill creating a national intelligence director, or NID. Besides, they say, including the provisions could prompt a filibuster in the Senate, or at the very least extend debate past Thanksgiving.

But in order to get a deal, House and Senate aides said the Senate may have to accept some of the more objectionable provisions that the House is pushing.

“We’re at the point now of what’s the absolute, most stinky thing we have to do to get a deal,” explained one Senate Republican aide. “It depends on how far [Senate conferees] are willing to come to the House position.”

Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said House Republican conferees appeared to be digging in on their positions, including those he called “extraneous.”

“They haven’t been too cooperative — they’ve been pretty stalwart in their views,” said Roberts. “We’re going to talk this thing to death.”

Roberts said he was confounded by the House’s reluctance to compromise, given that the White House appears to agree with Senate conferees that the provisions on immigration and law enforcement should be jettisoned.

In fact, this past weekend, Bush personally called some House conferees — including Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (D-Calif.) — to ask them to get a bill done. Hunter has been identified as a key opponent of the bill because he’s demanding that the Pentagon not cede too much authority to the NID.

Still, Lott indicated that House conferees had given tentative consent to the Senate’s latest offer on how much power the NID should wield over intelligence agencies that have historically been housed in the Pentagon.

Though precise details of the proposal remained sketchy at press time because legislative language was not available, it appeared the deal would include giving the NID the authority to directly disburse funds to defense-related intelligence agencies, while preserving the Defense secretary’s day-to-day control over their operations.

That deal, if it holds up, looks like a modest victory for Hunter and other Pentagon backers in Congress because it appears to weaken the ability of the NID to control all intelligence agencies — something 9/11 commissioners and Senate conferees had fought against.

However, Roberts said Senate conferees were willing to take the deal because they want to first establish the office of the NID and then work to expand the position’s powers over a period of years.

“We can incrementally improve what will be passed or what will hopefully be passed,” Roberts said.