WASHINGTON - The powerful chairmen of the committees that oversee the military have emerged this week as the most significant obstacles to the push on Capitol Hill for a fundamental restructuring of the nation's intelligence community.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, fighting to preserve the Pentagon's grip on as many intelligence agencies and assets as possible, are expected to offer amendments to an intelligence bill on the Senate floor this week that would curb the powers of a proposed new national intelligence director.
The senators have warned that Congress, in its rush to address flaws in the intelligence system highlighted by the Sept. 11 commission, might end up creating a new layer of bureaucracy that could hurt the Pentagon's ability to fight wars. But critics say it is a desire to protect their committees' turf that has spurred the senators to battle against the growing number of Democrats and Republicans who worry they could pay a political price in the November elections if they fail to act quickly on the recommendations of the Sept. 11 panel.
"There is a very, very heavy overtone of the turf battle which is present here this afternoon," an exasperated Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said in a testy exchange with Warner on the Senate floor. The two clashed over an amendment Specter offered that would give even more power to a national intelligence director than called for in the Senate bill. Warner protested that it would damage the Pentagon's access to intelligence. A vote on Specter's amendment is expected today.
Warner responded that he and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, might "jointly put in some amendments tomorrow ... not in the manner of a turf battle. ... I personally am striving to do what's best for this country."
One senior Senate aide, however, said the Armed Services chairman was bound to look askance at any effort to remove any budgetary authority over intelligence agencies from the Pentagon, which controls 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion intelligence budget.
"The committee draws its authority from its responsibilities over the Pentagon," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "So if the Pentagon loses authority, the committee loses authority."
The 77-year-old Warner, who served as a sailor in World War II and a Marine in the Korean War before becoming secretary of the Navy, used his military record to become one of the Senate's most respected military authorities after he entered the Senate in 1979.
The Senate bill being debated this week would shift from the Pentagon to the national intelligence director authority over the budgets of three agencies - the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Agency and the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency.
The bill's supporters say it would put strategic intelligence agencies in the hands of the national intelligence director, leaving the Pentagon in charge of strictly battlefield-related intelligence. Opponents say that such a division is impossible to achieve.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.