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Congress Sends Intelligence Reform Bill to White House

The U.S. Senate has given final approval to a sweeping intelligence reform bill Wednesday, a day after passage by the House of Representatives. The vote was 89 to two. The measure now goes to President Bush for his signature.

The legislation calls for the most significant reform of the U.S. intelligence community in more than half a century.

The measure generally adopts recommendations made by the federal commission that probed the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. It calls for the establishment of a national intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center to coordinate the gathering and sharing of intelligence.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, is chief sponsor of the bill:

"I am not saying Mr. [Senate] President that this legislation will prevent future terrorist attacks, but it will increase the capabilities of the intelligence community and help us improve the opportunity to better detect, prevent, and if necessary, respond to attacks on our country," said Ms. Collins.

The legislation is the culmination of months of hearings, meetings and often tense negotiations. Its passage appeared to be in jeopardy just days ago, after House Republicans expressed last-minute objections.

Amid pressure from President Bush, lawmakers reached a compromise over language ensuring that battlefield commanders would have priority access to intelligence assets.

Despite the deal, lawmakers still have concerns about the bill.

Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, who voted for the measure, believes the national intelligence director would wield too much power.

"This director of national intelligence is not an elected official, and is not directly accountable to the American people," he noted. "The director of national intelligence will only be able to be reigned in by the President himself, and that I believe puts an overwhelming burden on the president of overseeing this official."

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, who also backed the legislation criticized the decision to drop provisions from the final bill that aimed at ensuring that the national intelligence director would have enough independence from the White House.

"When we wrote the Senate bill, we included provisions to promote the objectivity and independence of intelligence assessments, and provide a check on the new national intelligence director from becoming a policy or political arm of the White House," said Mr. Levin. "I am troubled that the conference report excludes some of those checks and significantly weakens others."

Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, who voted against the measure, argued that Congress was rushing to pass the bill before the end of the year without adequate debate.

"We do not know if it will enable the intelligence agencies or enable the government in all of its ramifications to better guard against a terror attack, or whether it will cause a host of unforeseen problems. We are failing in yet another misguided rush to judgment to take the time to find out," he explained.

Other lawmakers say the legislation fails to address tougher immigration standards, and in particular does not bar illegal immigrants, including potential terrorists, from getting a driver's license or other identification.

Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, introduced legislation Wednesday to address those concerns.

While many lawmakers agreed the bill is not perfect, they argued it was necessary. Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, spoke for the majority.

"While this is not the best bill possible, it is the best possible bill," said Mr. Roberst.

A White House spokesman says President Bush is looking forward to signing the intelligence reform bill into law, saying it will make America safer.