Adversaries in the battle over intelligence reform seized upon a White House statement Tuesday, interpreting the document as bolstering their side’s preferred legislative remedies.
Supporters of keeping a significant Defense Department role in intelligence policy — including Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) — were emboldened by what they viewed as the White House’s endorsement of their desire to prevent a bill now under consideration in the Senate from diluting the Pentagon’s authority over the Defense intelligence budget and personnel.
“Basically, what the president has outlined … reflects the Pentagon’s position on the bill,” Stevens said.
But Senate Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) — who co-authored the pending intelligence bill along with ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) — saw the White House’s official “Statement of Administration Policy” differently.
Collins declared that the administration had endorsed her position, not that of Stevens and Warner.
“It clearly says that the administration would oppose any amendment to weaken the full budget authority” of the national intelligence director, Collins said.
The issue has become one of the most polarizing in the Senate’s debate over implementation of the intelligence overhaul recommended by the 9/11 commission, which recommended that a national intelligence director be vested with the authority over budgets for defense intelligence agencies and be able to reapportion funds among the 15 intelligence agencies.
John Ullyot, Warner’s spokesman, said the wording of the Bush administration’s statement implied that the president still believes that the Defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “need a role in managing and executing” the budgets of intelligence agencies within the Defense Department.
Warner and Stevens have charged that the Collins-Lieberman bill, which takes up many of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations, could take away crucial intelligence community links that the secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff need to successfully conduct military operations.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member on Armed Services, explained that Defense Department backers worry that “budget execution authority” for several Defense intelligence programs will be taken away by the bill.
Having a strong national intelligence director “does not contradict with the secretary of Defense having meaningful input on the direction of intelligence agencies,” Ullyot added.
But Warner indicated on the Senate floor Tuesday that he would be offering amendments to increase the Defense secretary’s ability to direct the budgets on both tactical and national intelligence-gathering.
Warner also complained that the Bush administration was not “more explicit in its writing” about what it means by “full budget authority.” Ullyot noted that the actual statement says, “The administration will oppose any amendments that would weaken the full budget authority or any other authorities that the president has requested for the NID.” Some lawmakers and 9/11 commission backers criticized the president earlier this month for proposing to keep many of the national intelligence-gathering agencies under the purview of the Defense Department while giving the national intelligence director only limited budget authority over those agencies.
Overall, the Statement of Administration Policy expressed the White House’s disagreement with the Senate bill on several fronts and primarily asked Congress to give the administration more flexibility in how it structures an office of the national intelligence director.
For example, the White House complained about “the excessive and unnecessary detail in the structure of the Office of the NID” in the bill and charged that “legislatively mandated bureaucracy will hinder, not help, in the effort to strengthen U.S. intelligence capabilities.”
The Bush administration also complained that “the 9/11 Commission found that the creation of a NID and National Counterterrorism Center, ‘will not work if Congressional oversight does not change to.’ The administration notes that the bill does not address this vital reform component.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) have set up a separate Senate working group to come up with recommendations on changes to Congressional oversight. But their work is not expected to be completed this week.
Collins and Lieberman did receive a boost yesterday from 9/11 commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, who said he also spoke for Chairman Tom Kean in endorsing the Senate bill, including its provisions giving the national intelligence director strong budget authority over all intelligence agencies.
Stevens discounted the 9/11 commissioners’ endorsement, saying their mandate to come up with recommendations had been satisfied and that they should just allow Congress to do its job rather than press for Members to adopt their exact recommendations.
“If anything, the turf-guarding people are Gov. Kean and [Vice Chairman] Hamilton,” said Stevens, deflecting charges that he has been jealously protecting his turf on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. “It’s amazing they think they can tell us what to do.”
In a related development, Stevens and Warner, along with Defense Appropriations ranking member Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), worked Tuesday to come up with a series of amendments to the intelligence bill that would bring the measure closer to their position, Ullyot said.
Stevens said he would offer an amendment that bars the national intelligence director from firing or reassigning military personnel. Beyond that, he declined to get into specifics.
“I’m not going to lay it out now,” said Stevens, who noted all the amendments would come from “the defense-oriented position that the president has expressed.”