US House agrees on intelligence bill

SECURITY REFORM: The bill, which adopts many of the findings of the Sept. 11 commission, was also expected to pass the Senate, despite a few remaining conflicts

AFP , WASHINGTON

Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 7

The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved landmark legislation to revamp the US' intelligence network, clearing the way for major reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The historic bill, approved by a vote of 336-75, by and large adopts the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission on ways to stop future terror strikes against the US, and comes after months of meetings, hearings and contentious bargaining.

The White House said President George W. Bush was "very pleased" by the bill's passage and expected the Senate to follow suit.

"The president is very pleased with House passage. He knows that this bill will make America safer," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

Republican Senator Susan Collins, who led the effort in the US Senate to draft the bill, said the legislation gives America's half-century-old security apparatus a much-needed overhaul.

"This legislation is going to make a real difference to the security of our country," Collins said.

"It is going to improve the quality of intelligence provided to our military and it will help to keep civilians safer here at home," she said.

The top Democrat on the reform bill effort, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, acknowledged that although there was almost universal agreement in Congress that intelligence reform was sorely needed, crafting a bill that lawmakers in both houses and both parties could agree on was anything but easy.

"We have walked a long and winding road to get to this day, but ultimately we've gotten to exactly where we wanted to be," Lieberman said.

Members of the Sept. 11 Commission, in a statement after the vote, said they were "deeply grateful" for the bill's passage.

The measure was to head to the US Senate for a vote and expected passage yesterday, and then goes to Bush's desk to be signed into law.

The bill is a soup-to-nuts remaking of US intelligence, from beefing up border security to enhancing information sharing between intelligence agencies and enacting standards.

The bill had been blocked for several days by a handful of Republicans voicing last minute objections, forcing Bush to step up pressure to pass it.

The bill was approved after lawmakers reached a compromise over the power exercised by the soon-to-be-created national intelligence director.

The deal ensures that the new director gets budget authority over America's 15 spy agencies, while the Department of Defense retains control of data from spy satellites for use on the battlefield.

The Republican holdout, James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, failed to get a concession that would require driver's license applicants across the US to document their residency.

But negotiators insisted that immigration-related reforms should be dealt with separately from intelligence, and promised to take up his concerns at the first possible opportunity.

Sensenbrenner urged his fellow lawmakers "to vote this down and start over next year," he said on the floor of the House.

Another supporter of tighter immigration provisions, slammed the bill as ineffectual.

"Today this Congress over-whelmingly approved an empty shell of a bill that will provide far more fodder for politicians' press releases than it will security for the public," said Republican Representative Tom Tancredo.

Most lawmakers voted for the measure, however -- some fearing the political fallout should another terror attack occur before a new reform bill is in place.

Lawmakers said the White House had played a key role in unsticking the stalled bill -- despite Bush's initial opposition to the creation of the Sept. 11 Commission.

Lawmakers noted that the bill passed in the House on the 63rd anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor -- a day making "the list of great intelligence failures of the United States," said Democratic Senator Bill Graham.

"Today, after a half a century, we are committed and on the verge of making some fundamental reforms that will reduce the chances of another Pearl Harbor or another 9/11 occurring."

But the outgoing Florida senator also lamented that similar reform might have prevented past intelligence failures -- had lawmakers had the foresight to revamp US intelligence earlier.

"I think a case can be made that both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq could have been avoided had we had more and better human intelligence capability," Graham said.