Negotiators Strike Deal on Intelligence Bill

Posted December 6, 2004 at 7:44pm

Feuding negotiators on the long-stalled intelligence overhaul bill reached agreement Monday, making it likely that the measure will pass both the House and Senate this week.

The House is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday, but as of this posting no vote had been scheduled. If the House passes it, the Senate will follow suit Wednesday, said Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

A meeting of all House Republicans is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday to formally decide whether to vote on the bill, which would implement many of the recommendations made by the bipartisan commission on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has said he did not want to bring the bill up for a vote unless a “majority of the majority” – that is, a majority of Republicans in the chamber – are ready to support the bill.

”We will have a conference – and hopefully have a vote,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Hastert.

In the meantime, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who had been a key player in blocking the bill before the compromise was reached, declared victory in his standoff with the White House and Senate negotiators who urged passage of the measure.

Hunter said he had achieved his goal of making sure that troops in battle would not be disadvantaged by the bill’s creation of a new director of national intelligence.

”Today has been a good day for the people who wear the uniform of the United States,” said Hunter.

Citing a promise to add language that preserves access to intelligence data for the existing military chain of command, Hunter and other Pentagon backers in the House and Senate said they would withdraw their objections to the bill and vote to pass it.

The bill has been stalled since before Thanksgiving, when Hunter and House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) convinced many of their rank-and-file colleagues to oppose a House-Senate negotiated compromise bill that was backed by Hastert, President Bush, a large bipartisan Senate majority and a majority of House Democrats.

With Hunter now firmly backing the bill, the White House and House GOP leaders are continuing to work on a solution to Sensenbrenner’s concerns, which involve the absence of changes to immigration law that he had sought. However, the president has said that he would like to address sweeping immigration reforms in the next Congress, which begins in January, and Congressional aides said Monday that a vote would likely go forward despite Sensenbrenner’s opposition.

By creating the position of director of national intelligence, the bill would concentrate control of the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies under one director responsible for budgetary and personnel matters. Currently the Pentagon controls many of the nation’s spy agencies, including some that do not work primarily on military intelligence.

After weeks of wrangling over technical aspects of the legislation, Hunter finally agreed to Senate-drafted language that would require the president to issue regulations that preserve the military chain of command. In essence, said one House Armed Services aide, the regulations would make it clear that if a conflict arose between the military and the new DNI over how to use intelligence assets, such as spy satellites, the military would take precedence.

”The regulations will tell members of the military and members of the intelligence agencies where the line is,” said Hunter. “I think it will help the intelligence community too because they’ll know where their boundaries are.”

However, Hunter and Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) acknowledged that different presidents could issue new regulations that might skew toward giving the intelligence director more power over intelligence assets.

”Each president has the right to write those regulations. But I hope they wouldn’t go beyond the law,” said Warner.

Part of the language to be included in the intelligence overhaul bill says that the regulations “shall respect and not abrogate the chain of command,” said Hunter.

Top Senate negotiators Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said the compromise did not weaken the budgetary powers of the DNI, as had been feared by members of the 9/11 commission and families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

”Our legislation clarifies the chain of command language while preserving the strong budget and other authorities that the Director of National Intelligence needs to fight the war on terrorism and counter other emerging threats,” Collins and Lieberman wrote in a statement.

The pair had reacted coolly last week to the prospect of further changes to the bill, but they eventually acquiesced under pressure from the White House.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.