How Intelligence Debate Will Unfold Is Unclear

Posted September 27, 2004 at 6:33pm

Both the House and Senate are plunging headfirst into an overhaul of the government’s intelligence structure this week, but with little understanding — even among the leadership — about where they will end up. [IMGCAP(1)]

Indeed, at a briefing with reporters Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) acknowledged the coming free-for-all, as the Senate began debate on creating a

national intelligence director and implementing other recommendations of the 9/11 commission.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on the floor of the Senate,” he said.

As it happens, struggles between Pentagon loyalists and devotees of the broader intelligence community are more likely to mark the debate in the Senate than are partisan disputes.

And for that reason, Frist appears to be taking a cautious approach to the Senate debate.

He acknowledged that he does not currently have a leadership strategy for dealing with contentious amendments. Still, he said, “I will develop a leadership strategy as this goes on,” most likely “amendment by amendment.”

Frist also acknowledged that he might have to forge his own path, without the help of such deputies as Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

He even held out the possibility that he would work instead with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on a floor strategy.

“It may very well be Senator Daschle and me, rather than the Republican leadership,” Frist said.

There’s no word on how that will play among GOP partisans who are currently trying to oust Daschle on Nov. 2 and replace him with former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) — a candidate Frist has campaigned for.

The only detail of the next two weeks that Frist seemed to be absolutely sure of was the recess date: Oct. 8. “I’ve been very clear that October 8 is when I want to leave,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to stick to that.”

But despite Frist’s desire to “stick to that,” he had to concede that his timetable leaves precious little time for the House and Senate to reconcile their disparate intelligence-reform bills prior to that date. After all, the House is unlikely to vote on its version until Oct. 6 or 7, and Frist said he could not predict with any certainty when the floor debate will end.

So while he said in one breath that he might ask Members to return to Washington for a day in late October to pass an intelligence conference report, Frist also declared, “That is not my goal. I don’t plan on doing that.”

Despite the apparent confusion, John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), agreed that it’s “very possible” that Members might be released Oct. 8 only to return by Halloween.

Of course, talking about a conference committee may be putting the cart before the horse, considering that the Senate’s debate over an intelligence bill authored by Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is headed for a rocky week or two, with all sorts of poison-pill amendments lurking.

Collins and Lieberman said Monday that their biggest challenges would be beating back amendments designed to either weaken the national intelligence director and the National Counterterrorism Center or strengthen those new institutions beyond what is already in the bill.

Despite Collins and Lieberman’s mutual confidence that they’ll be able to beat back those amendments — as they did in committee last week — it’s anybody’s guess as to whether they’ll be able to do it.

Proponents of further diminishing the intelligence director’s budget authority come primarily from the Senate Armed Services Committee, because they fear the director will make it more difficult for the Pentagon — and therefore soldiers in combat zones — to get actionable intelligence.

On the other hand, Senate Intelligence Committee-types have complained that the Collins-Lieberman bill does not go far enough to empower the director with the budget authority to direct a comprehensive and unified intelligence-gathering effort.

“Some of these amendments run the risk of tying the director up in knots,” Lieberman said. “Those are going to be the most important votes we take.”

With Senate committee jurisdictional issues dominating the debate, Collins said she is hoping the “shifting coalitions” that surfaced during her committee’s debate will help her defeat amendments.

Of course, it may help that today 9/11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton are expected to endorse the Collins-Lieberman bill.

In the meantime, the House will be giving the public a real-life example of what the 9/11 commission warned was an inefficient way for Congress to deal with intelligence issues: The House leadership-authored bill is being sent to a half-dozen committees for markup.

If all goes as planned, the House intelligence bill will have wound its way, by the end of the week, through Armed Services, Financial Services, Government Reform, Judiciary, Transportation and Infrastructure and, of course, Intelligence.

Given that House leaders are allowing their bill to appear in so many forums, it will probably not be difficult to gauge throughout the week how active, if at all, the backlash might be against the House GOP’s decision to add controversial law enforcement and immigration provisions to their intelligence bill.

A handful of moderate House Republicans, along with several House Democrats, have cried foul over the GOP leadership’s attempt to force Members to vote for what many see as a rollback of civil liberties, as well as what they consider a muddying of the waters.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), for example, said he would push his legislation that more closely mirrors the recommendations contained in the 9/11 commission’s report.