Legislation to reorganize the U.S. intelligence community has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. The vote sets the stage for negotiations with the Senate on a final bill implementing recommendations of the independent commission on the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
The House bill, like a version passed earlier by the Senate, creates a new National Director of Intelligence, as well as a counter-terrorism center to help manage intelligence from various government agencies.
But the Republican-crafted House legislation goes further in strengthening existing laws dealing with immigration and asylum, and bolsters government powers to deport individuals suspected of links to terrorist groups.
This fueled debate as Democrats argued that the legislation, as well as Republican amendments, go too far and could result in innocent people being subjected to torture by foreign governments.
John Hostettler, a Wisconsin Republican, said flaws in current laws now create situations in which [foreigners] suspected of being terrorists or a danger to Americans, could be released from detention pending deportation. "This amendment will [give] the secretary of Homeland Security the tools to keep dangerous aliens granted protection under the torture convention, out of our communities, off of our streets and away from our children," he said.
Congressman Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the amendment and the Republican House bill, could lead to people being detained indefinitely without judicial review, and eventually deported to countries where, despite government assurances, they could face torture. "America should not be outsourcing torture to countries like Syria and the Sudan. America should be relying not on diplomatic assurances from countries that we already know practice torture, particularly when a U.S. judge has already found it is more likely than not the person would be tortured if they were sent there," he said.
Rejecting Democrat protests, the amendment was approved by the House, as was another by Republican Mark Green. His proposal would not only deny admission to, but authorize the deportation of, individuals found to have provided funding or material support to terrorist groups, or participate in terrorist training. "We are a welcoming country. I am the proud son of immigrants. But we cannot allow our welcoming arms to be a tool for terrorists who seek our downfall," he said.
Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee opposed the amendment saying it increases the chances of innocent persons being deported. "No one is opposed to identifying [or] denying admission to terrorists. No one is opposed to deporting terrorists who are found in the United States. However, we should not exclude or deport someone as a terrorist who is an innocent person," she said.
Democrats surprised many observers with a stronger protest vote than expected. Nearly two thirds voted against the bill along with one independent lawmaker, but nearly a third of Democrats voted for it.
House Democratic leaders, including Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, blasted Republicans in a news conference on the issues of intelligence and homeland security. "Our first responsibility as elected officials is to protect the American people. There is a clear and present danger to the American homeland. But Republicans have failed to meet that challenge," she said.
Describing Democrat complaints as baffling, Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, said the Republican bill will make Americans safer. "It's comprehensive. It reforms the government, to make it more effective in battling terrorists that want to do harm to this country," he said.
Approval of the House intelligence bill sets up a conference with the Senate to come up with a compromise bill that can be sent to President Bush for signature. Lawmakers will have to be called back from adjournment for those talks.
Republicans told reporters negotiations with the Senate will be challenging, but say they are ready to work with the other chamber to get that done as quickly as possible and hopefully before the presidential election on November 2.
However, Democrats have vowed a last minute push in conference to put provisions in the Senate bill they see as more desirable into the House legislation.