The House of Representatives is considering its version of legislation to reorganize the U.S. intelligence system, following Senate approval on Wednesday of a separate measure.
Congressional lawmakers have waited until the final hours of this session to act on what many believe is the most important piece of legislation in this 108th Congress.
Republicans maintained from the start that their bill is a comprehensive response to the final report of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but they also say that legislation alone cannot win the battle against terrorism.
One who believes that is Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House intelligence committee, who had this cautionary message for Americans. "I want to be clear to the American people. Structural changes, enhanced authorities cannot and will not ensure perfect knowledge about our enemy's plans and intentions," he said. "It is important to say that those who would do America harm are clever. They are very secretive. The asymmetric threats that they can both imagine and effect require us to be many fold better at defense than they need to be in offense. That said I firmly believe the improvements provided in this bill will make significant improvements in the outcomes of our intelligence analysis, collection and dissemination."
Like the Senate bill, House legislation creates a new national intelligence director, and a counter-terrorist center to coordinate sharing of information.
The House bill does not give the intelligence director as much budget authority, nor does it make public how much money the government spends on intelligence gathering.
Democrats repeated their argument that the House bill is weak and does not address key vulnerabilities in homeland security.
Jane Harman, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, complains Democratic amendments aimed at correcting flaws in the bill were blocked by the Republican leadership. "The actions by the speaker in the [House] Rules Committee to strip bipartisan provisions of H.R. 10 [the intelligence bill] are a sorry way to start this historic debate," she said.
Democrats say Republican legislation fully implements only 11 of the 41 recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, while partially addressing 15 and ignoring 15 others altogether.
Robert Menendez, is a New Jersey Democrat who sought to replace the Republican bill with one that essentially mirrored legislation approved by the Senate. "The House Republican bill includes provisions that are unnecessary, unrelated to the bill's stated purpose which is reorganizations of the intelligence community aimed at strengthening the nation against terrorist attack," he said.
Democrats are also upset over provisions involving illegal immigration and border security they say would endanger civil liberties, including new powers to deport foreign nationals, revoke visas and deny asylum, and expand authority to conduct surveillance.
Earlier this week, Wendy Patten of Human Rights Watch spoke at a Capitol Hill news conference about two provisions critics say go too far in enhancing powers the government has to deport individuals suspected of being terrorists or supporting terrorist groups. "The House leadership's 9/11 bill would authorize the outsourcing of torture to brutal dictatorships like Syria, Saudi Arabia and China. If this provision were to become law, the United States could send a person to one of those countries even if it were 100 percent certain the person would be tortured," she said.
Despite a last minute change in one of the provisions, Democrats say they could still expose individuals the government sees as a threat to the risk of torture if they are deported.
Republicans permitted debate on 23 amendments to the House bill, only one of them from a Democrat.
The House legislation is expected to pass overwhelmingly on Friday, leaving it to a smaller group of lawmakers in a conference to work out a final compromise bill that can be sent to President Bush for signature.