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Congress Will Have Final Chance on Intelligence Reform Next Week


Congress will have a final chance next week to put into effect changes to the U.S. intelligence system, as President Bush engages in last minute intervention with lawmakers who have been blocking intelligence legislation.

Early in his administration, and even after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush opposed creation of a new Department of Homeland Security, and also resisted calls for an independent investigation of weaknesses in the U.S. intelligence system.

In the final moments of the 108th Congress, he is using every persuasive tool to help Congress get past the last barriers to intelligence reform based on 41 recommendations by the September 11 Commission whose creation he eventually came to support.

What is at stake couldn't be clearer. Mr. Bush would like to be able to take the oath of office for his second presidential term, and refer in his State of the Union Address, to achieving perhaps the most crucial reform since three-thousand Americans died in the al-Qaida attacks in New York and Pentagon.

Congressman Christopher Shays, a member of Mr. Bush's Republican party, spoke to that issue recently on Capitol Hill. "I can't imagine that this President would want to be sworn in, knowing that he let down the families of 9/11, that he let down this country, given such a wonderful (election) victory, and I would think that he would want very much to sign a bill and put this behind us so we can start fresh," he said.

So, Mr. Bush has been speaking by telephone, and meeting with not only Republican House and Senate leaders, but specifically two lawmakers whose objections have prevented enactment of a final intelligence reform bill.

They are the chairmen of two powerful House panels, California Republican Duncan Hunter of the Armed Services Committee, and Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who heads the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Bush wants to lessen their concerns regarding two issues - how much authority a new national intelligence director will have over agencies controlled by the Department of Defense, and a provision to deny U.S. driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Congressman Hunter has maintained any changes that would reduce the Pentagon's budgetary control could endanger U.S. troops by complicating a chain of command over how such resources as intelligence information from satellites are utilized.

In recent remarks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the difficulty of making changes in the intelligence system. "The difficulty I suppose that comes up is, the same piece of information can simultaneously be tactical battlefield information, and at the same time be national intelligence. We all know that. These things don't fall into neat [categories] where they are one or the other, so this is tough stuff," he said.

Congressman Hunter had support from, among others, [military] Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers. But General Myers now says his main concerns have been addressed in compromise language agreed to by lawmakers.

Family members of September 11, 2001 victims, such as Carol Ashley, have expressed concern that in the debate on this issue, lawmakers such as Congressman Hunter might have lost sight of a larger goal. "We agree with the House Republican conferees that our war fighters must receive the best possible intelligence. Whenever another young soldier is killed, it tears us up. But Americans here at home must also receive the same caliber of protection as our war fighters," he said.

For President Bush, overcoming resistance from members of his own party on Capitol Hill has been an unexpected challenge in the wake of his victory in the U.S. election in November.

Mr. Bush is expected to present his final views on the intelligence bill in a letter to Republican lawmakers, and will also use his weekly radio address to focus on the issue.

On Monday, the House of Representatives convenes one last time and if Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert schedules a vote on final language hammered out over the weekend, the Senate would also return to approve the bill.

This would send it to President Bush's desk for signature, making it possible for him to start his second term on the strength of a major legislative victory, and setting the stage for other battles as he moves to implement his agenda.

But failure would be not only a political blow for the president, but would also mean the intelligence reform effort would be dead for this year, requiring that it be taken up anew by the 109th Congress, a result many say would leave the country more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks.

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