The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation reorganizing the nation's intelligence system. The vote was 336 to 75. The Senate is expected to follow, sending the bill, designed to improve the coordination, collection, analysis and sharing of intelligence, to President Bush who has indicated he will sign it into law.
The legislation is notable for two reasons. It would trigger the most extensive overhaul of the U.S. intelligence system in 50 years. It also constitutes the second big reorganization affecting the U.S. government since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
Republican House lawmakers are calling the legislation a victory for the security of Americans in the war on terrorism.
Congressman Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says the bill will create a more organized and aggressive intelligence community, while helping U.S. troops and others in the war on terrorism. But he had this word of caution: "I'm not under the false impression that by themselves, these structural changes and enhanced authorities vested in a new director of national intelligence will ensure perfect knowledge about our enemies in the future," he said. "Those that would do America harm are clever, they are secretive, and the asymmetrical threats they can imagine and effect require us to be many fold better at defense than they need be in offense."
Establishment of a new national intelligence director to oversee 15 intelligence agencies is among 41 recommendations of the independent September 11th Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
This director would also oversee the CIA, which for now will continue to have its own separate director as well, as well as those under the Pentagon.
The legislation also sets up a national counter-terrorism center as a repository for information on terrorists, and contains measures to strengthen transportation and border security, as well as visa procedures.
Senator John Rockefeller, top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, describes it as being more than just moving boxes around in the U.S. intelligence community. "This is a profoundly important bill (and) one of the reasons for it is it will put an intense scrutiny from all of you (in the media), from all Americans, from all of us in the Congress, on what in fact happens as this new system evolves," he said.
The legislation does not contain strong immigration-related provisions, including proposals to deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and toughen asylum guidelines. This, said Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, leaves Americans more vulnerable: "While we will have better intelligence, good intelligence is useless without good homeland security," he said.
But fellow Republican, Senator Susan Collins, said the provisions would have killed the bill. "We just could not let the most significant reforms of our intelligence community in 50 years go down because of controversy over issues that were not recommended by the September 11 commission and (that) were not central to the bill," she said.
Republicans say they're committed to passing strong immigration reform next year, as President Bush had urged as a way of removing controversial issues blocking the intelligence bill.
Democrats as well as Republicans had praise for President Bush's role in helping lawmakers overcome final disagreements.
California Democrat Jane Harman says it was a test for the President and put to rest any doubts he did not fully support the legislation. "It is a big deal to bring this Congress together, this Congress that has sadly been so polarized and I would say so dysfunctional, and this victory is a huge victory for bipartisanship," she said.
Mrs. Harman and others pointed to the House chamber balcony where family members of people killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks were observing final House debate on the intelligence bill.
"I don't think anybody wants to delay intelligence reform, it has been three years and it is definitely long enough. These intelligence reform issues, we have discussed them all, ad nauseum, now we need to take action," said one of those family members,Carrie LeMack.
Not all September 11 families supported final compromise language of the bill, echoing concerns that without stronger immigration provisions the country will be vulnerable to another terrorist attack such as that on September 11, 2001.
Many House Republicans who agree with that voted against the legislation on Tuesday.