US President George W. Bush on Saturday sought to stem a near-rebellion by members of his own party in Congress by describing a sweeping intelligence-overhaul bill they oppose as an effort "to do everything necessary to confront and defeat the terrorist threat" and calling for its passage during a brief congressional session in the coming week.
Bush's remarks in his weekly radio address came a day after a powerful Senate Republican, John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, expressed doubts about the bill, which would enact the major recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission and create a Cabinet-level director of national intelligence.
Warner, the first member of the Senate from either party to raise such concerns publicly since the final bill was hammered out last month, said he wanted to resolve issues in the legislation that "may impact the time-tested chain-of-command" within the defense department. His comments echo those of a group of House Republicans who blocked a vote on the bill last month.
Under the bill, the Pentagon, which is now believed to control about 80 percent of the government's estimated US$40 billion intelligence budget, would have to cede some authority to a new national intelligence director, resulting in a similar loss of oversight authority for the Senate committee led by Warner, as well as the Armed Services Committee in the House.
Congressional officials, speaking on condition of anonymity given the delicate nature of the discussions, said the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, and Vice President Dick Cheney were involved in talks to appease the bill's opponents on Capitol Hill, possibly by rewriting the legislation to provide additional guarantees to the defense department over its control of three large spy agencies that now reside within the Pentagon but provide intelligence to agencies outside the defense department.
The largest of the three is the National Security Agency, which is responsible for electronic surveillance in foreign countries.
Bush, by using his radio address to make his most impassioned public plea to date for the intelligence bill, raised the stakes in a legislative battle that pits the White House against lawmakers in the president's own party and could suggest trouble for Bush in pursuing a broader second-term agenda in Congress, including legislation to overhaul the Social Security system and the tax code.
Bush, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the members of the Sept. 11 commission have all endorsed the intelligence bill. But its final passage is being prevented by a core of conservative House Republicans close to the Pentagon who may now have the support of Warner.
In the radio address, Bush said that Congress was being given the opportunity to pass "a strong new law" that "would make America more secure" by coordinating the work of the nation's intelligence agencies, and specifically by creating the job of national intelligence director.
The Sept. 11 commission had urged that the job be created in an effort to force rival intelligence and counterterrorism agencies, notably the CIA and the FBI, to put aside generations-old turf battles and cooperate against terrorist threats.
In its final report last July, the Sept. 11 commission cataloged a series of instances in which spy agencies refused or otherwise failed to share intelligence before Sept. 11 that might have led to disruption of the terrorist plot.