Wed, Dec 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Congress set to pass intelligence deal

ELEVENTH-HOUR COMPROMISE Only days before the US legislature adjourns until next year, Republicans and Democrats hammered out an agreement on intelligence reform


Congress was poised to pass a bill to fix faulty US spy agencies, after a deal allayed conservative fears that the Pentagon would lose power, a key legislator said Monday.

"We have been working as you know over the many weeks trying to ensure that we have a good provision for chain-of-command protection, and we have that," Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter told reporters.

President George W. Bush urged lawmakers to forge a deal before Congress adjourns at the end of the week, scuttling the bill until next year.

"I call on Congress to pass an intelligence bill this week," Bush said in a letter to lawmakers dated Dec. 6.

"We are very close to a significant achievement that will better protect our country for generations to come, and now is the time to finish the job for the good of our national security," Bush said in the letter.

The bill incorporates recommendations from an independent investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, which said US intelligence services needed to be streamlined to prevent similar attacks.

A key recommendation was to centralize various US intelligence agencies, including the military, under a common intelligence "czar."

However, Republican leaders feared that structure would stand between the Pentagon and battlefield intelligence. They held up a vote on the bill, despite Bush's calls to approve it.

Bush's Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, and it was members of his own party who stalled passage.

The House and Senate have passed similar versions of the bill, which legislators needed to reconcile and which both houses must yet pass, before sending the text for Bush's signature.

Passage of the bill took on special urgency as the end of the congressional session loomed, because a failed bill would have to be rewritten from scratch in next year's session.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, took credit for drafting the compromise language, aimed at preserving the intelligence "czar," which many legislators deemed critical.

"We are pleased that the president is endorsing the conference agreement and strongly reiterating his desire for Congress to pass an intelligence reform bill this week so that he can sign it into law," they said in a joint statement.

The chain-of-command issue apparently resolved, House and Senate conferees tackled differences over closing immigration loopholes.

While some US states sought to issue drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, backed a nationwide ban on issuing illegals licenses, the most common form of US identification.

"Terrorists have exploited vulnerabilities in our asylum system and in the issuance of drivers licenses," he said in a statement.

Some legislators proposed dealing with such a ban next year, while Representative Deborah Price said "I think there are ways we can accommodate" Sensenbrenner.

Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, Saxby Chambliss and Charles Grassley, meanwhile, opposed a provision in the bill allowing an appeal to foreigners whose visas had been revoked.

Bush initially opposed both the creation of the blue-ribbon panel that led the probe and then its central recommendation: that the new intelligence "czar" have wide hire-and-fire powers and control over budgets.

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