9/11 panel presses for quick action on reforms

Citing 'sense of urgency,' senators call for hearings

July 24, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Moving to capitalize on public attention to their scathing report, members of the Sept. 11 commission pushed yesterday for quick action on their recommendations, which they have called vital to preventing an even more catastrophic terrorist attack.

House and Senate leaders promised to move speedily to address the recommendations the commission made in its report Thursday.

And the top Republican and top Democrat on a key Senate committee announced plans to convene their panel the first week in August - during Congress' usual summer break - to review the panel's recommendations. They promised to produce legislation by Oct. 1.

The Republican chairman of the 9/11 commission, Thomas H. Kean, went so far yesterday as to suggest that a rare special session of Congress be held in August to deal swiftly with his panel's recommendations.

"We're in danger of just letting things slide," Kean told reporters. "We believe unless we implement these recommendations, we're more vulnerable to another terrorist attack."

Commission members said they planned to press Congress and President Bush to make sure their proposals receive more urgent attention than the recommendations made by some past blue-ribbon panels.

Privately, some congressional leaders said the six-week summer recess, which began yesterday, and the politically charged countdown to the November elections could push any review of the recommendations into the new year.

Some of the proposals require only administrative oversight. They include reforms suggested for the FBI, CIA and aviation agencies. But the more overarching ideas, such as the establishment of a director of national intelligence and a National Counterterrorism Center, need congressional legislation.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said that the president supports reform of the intelligence community but stopped short of endorsing a Cabinet-level intelligence chief.

"I think we will want to look at that particular recommendation and others of the commission, and to look at them in light of whether or not they improve our capability to collect, improve our capability to analyze, to set clear requirements, to prioritize," Rice said on NBC's Today show.

But commissioners received some positive signs yesterday that their proposals will receive quick and supportive reviews. Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the senior Democrat, both of whom favor a director of national intelligence, announced plans to convene that committee the first week in August - despite the summer break - to take up the recommendations.

Lieberman said they both canceled personal plans in order to hold hearings in August.

"We've got to go at this with a real sense of urgency," he said. "When members of both houses go home for this recess, the folks back home are going to say: `Why are you home? Why aren't you in Washington dealing with the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission?'"

With the support of several of her House Democratic colleagues, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, also pressed for quick results. She asked Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, to take the highly unusual step of reconvening the House for a special session in August so committees could begin reviewing the commission's work.

Hastert, though, rejected the idea of reopening the House through the August break, saying that it is important not "to rush through anything." The last time Congress had a special session was in 1948, according to the Senate's historical office.

Later, Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas jointly requested that House committees hold hearings in August and recommend legislation in September.

But changes could be delayed by some in Congress who are skeptical of some recommendations, in particular the idea of a Cabinet-level intelligence director with budgetary authority over the nation's intelligence apparatus. That recommendation received a lukewarm reception from members of the Intelligence Committee at a hearing this week on a similar proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Some senators questioned whether having a Cabinet-level intelligence director might cause politics to unduly influence intelligence gathering. Collins said she expects some resistance as her committee assesses the two ideas. She said that those and other recommendations that seek tighter congressional oversight would require long-entrenched institutions to change,

"It's always difficult to both reorganize the executive branch and the Congress," Collins said. "I think both are taking on established interests that are in some ways entrenched and will be resistant to change.

"But the stakes are too high," she said. "We just can't allow turf battles to dictate the organization of our intelligence capabilities."

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