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US Lawmakers Still Trying to Reach Agreement on the Country's New Intelligence System


Lawmakers negotiating a final bill on reforming the U.S. intelligence system say contentious issues still stand in the way of agreement. House and Senate members have not ruled out a deal before the U.S. election early next month, but say more time may be required to do the job right in order to protect Americans from another terrorist attack.

Negotiations continue behind closed doors, involving members of the House-Senate conference committee, as well as the White House.

Although immigration and law enforcement provisions in the House version of the bill remain controversial, the question of how much budget authority a new national intelligence director would have is now the central subject of debate.

House legislation provides for less of that authority than a bipartisan bill approved overwhelmingly by the Senate.

The Pentagon wants the secretary of defense to retain control over the budgets of some intelligence agencies falling under it, a move House Democrats assert would substantially weaken the new national intelligence director.

Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who chairs the House Committee on Intelligence, says intense behind-the-scenes negotiations have so far failed to overcome disagreements. "We still have some very contentious issues that we still have some differences to work through," he said.

Offers and counter-offers are passing between the House, where majority Republicans crafted a bill without Democratic participation, and the Senate where lawmakers from both parties cooperated on a more bipartisan bill.

Congressman Hoekstra denies the debate is one of a weak intelligence director versus a strong one, saying everyone agrees on the need to make the position strong.

Republican Senator Susan Collins focuses on what she and others call the most critical element. "We must have a National Intelligence Director with the ability to marshal the people, the funds and the resources, to counter the threats that our country faces," she said.

Congresswoman Jane Harman, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, calls the question of authority of a new intelligence director, in her words, a major deal breaker.

She is also concerned lawmakers may lose their momentum toward a compromise on intelligence reform if negotiations do not succeed before Americans go to the polls, and urges President Bush to become personally involved. "There has to be strong presidential leadership here if we're ever to get across the finish line," she said.

Negotiations also continue on immigration and law enforcement provisions that would empower the government to take stronger action against illegal immigrants or those suspected of terrorist links.

Democrats call these "extraneous" to the main intelligence legislation. The September 11th Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks has urged lawmakers to use separate legislation to address these concerns.