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US Intelligence Reform Still Hangs in Balance

It has been one of the highest priorities of the 108th Congress to approve legislation reorganizing the U.S. intelligence system, in an effort to help prevent future terrorist attacks in the United States like those on September 11, 2001. But the Republican-controlled legislature has so far failed to do so, leaving many to wonder why the recommendations of the September 11 Commission have not been enacted.

There is a saying often heard in the U.S. Congress, "the devil is in the details." It describes the difficulty lawmakers often have bringing negotiations over the specific wording of a new law to a successful conclusion.

Such has been the case with efforts by Congress to place into law some 41 key recommendations of the September 11th Commission.

After two years of closed and public hearings with hundreds of witnesses, including current and former presidents, the ten-member commission issued its final report in July.

Its message, expressed in a strong display of bipartisan unity in a report that became a best-selling book: reform the ways intelligence is gathered, processed, managed, analyzed and acted upon, or face new attacks like those that killed some three-thousand people on September 11th, 2001.

But members of Congress do not like to implement anyone's recommendations without applying their own expertise, opinions and political motivations. That was demonstrated again in the way the House and Senate handled the September 11 legislation.

Competing bills aimed to establish a new national intelligence director with broad powers to oversee numerous intelligence-related agencies, from the CIA to others in the Pentagon.

But while the Senate bill was marked by unprecedented bipartisan cooperation, and approved overwhelmingly in a 96 to 2 vote, Republicans in the House of Representatives added tougher provisions, creating a rift with Democrats, and set up contentious negotiations to reconcile the two bills.

Being able to sign a final September 11 bill would have brought substantial political benefits to President Bush, who spoke after winning re-election about having more political "capital" and influence with Congress.

"When you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view and that is what I intend to tell the Congress," said Mr. Bush.

Carol Ashley, and other family members of those killed in the September 11 attacks, urged Mr. Bush and Congress to act. "If this legislation fails, it will be because the president did not step forward to lead and make it happen," said Ms Ashely. "A political bureaucracy riddled with special interests and turf protection, will have succeeded in defeating this bill."

President Bush did throw his political weight behind the Senate legislation, which endorsed giving a new intelligence director far more authority than the House bill to control about $40 billion spent each year on intelligence.

But presidential intervention went just so far. Having failed to achieve compromise before the election, House-Senate negotiations reached a stalemate before and during a post-election session.

House Republicans were strongly influenced by senior defense officials, who insisted any weakening of Pentagon control over agencies under its umbrella would complicate efforts to get U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere high-quality intelligence.

Key House Republicans, notably Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, stood firm in favor of Pentagon control.

"That [September 11] commission said that we needed to make sure that our borders were safer, that we need to make sure that we could track people who would get into this country illegally or legally but are terrorist threats and that we can make sure that our military, our men and women who do the job over there, have the wherewithal to get it intelligence and the technologies to get it," he said.

As Congress neared what were to be its final hours of the year late last week, House-Senate negotiators had narrowed differences enough to come up with a final bill. But the belief the remaining differences could be reconciled was short-lived.

Placed on the schedule for a House vote, the bill was suddenly withdrawn by Republican leaders, amid last minute objections by some House members, and pressure from defense officials.

General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the most visible of senior military commanders opposing changes that would affect Pentagon intelligence agencies. "Chairman Hunter called and asked for my opinion on a certain matter that related to intelligence reform, and I was obliged to give him my opinion, and I did that," he noted.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he was aware of General Meyer's personal opinion. But in a Tuesday news conference, he described as nonsense and inaccurate media reports that he was at odds with the White House, and attempted to sabotage intelligence reform.

"The answer is absolutely not. It's just plain inaccurate to say, as the New York Times editorial does, that I have," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld stopped short of endorsing the intelligence reform bill in Congress, saying only that he supports the president's position.

Democrats stand by their assertion Mr. Rumsfeld actively opposed the Senate's version of the intelligence bill.

But as another old saying goes, "it's not over until it's over." Amid a wave of negative public reaction, the House and Senate have scheduled an additional session on December 6, during which they could approve a final intelligence bill.