9/11 flimflam

October 05, 2004

AS CONGRESS prepares to depart Washington shortly for the campaign trail, the stage is set for last-minute skullduggery on the overhaul of national intelligence agencies. If lawmakers come home and say they've done the job, don't buy it sight unseen.

Oh, the Senate is trying - slogging its way through a bipartisan bill that reflects a reasonable effort to adopt many of the reforms recommended by the independent commission that investigated why the nation was so vulnerable to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Voters would be best served if Congress remained on duty long enough to hammer that measure into a shape of which all could justly feel proud.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay have been in no rush, yielding, it appears, to the status quo forces in Washington that stand to lose power and influence if sweeping changes are adopted. At the top of that list is the Pentagon, which currently controls eight of the 15 intelligence agencies and 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion intelligence budget.

The measure expected to come before House members this week is far weaker than the Senate bill in the authority it would assign to a proposed national intelligence director, and also includes "poison pill" provisions that demand harsher treatment of immigrants and intrude on civil liberties.

Most alarming is the plan to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the overhaul in a conference committee, meeting while the majority of lawmakers are out campaigning.

If Congress is summoned back to Washington as planned shortly before the Nov. 2 election to vote on the final product, the choice will likely be: Take it or leave it. Dissenters will be subject to be branded in campaign commercials as enemies of reform.

This issue, if no other, is too crucial to the nation's safety to be dealt with in such raw political terms. It calls to mind the outrage of two years ago, when disabled Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, a Democratic senator from Georgia, was tarred as unpatriotic and defeated for re-election because he objected to anti-labor provisions in legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security.

To be fair, congressional leaders are being asked to overcome one of the highest hurdles in Washington - the transfer of power. This is a delicate business subject to much negotiation. Further, the 9/11 commission recommendations must be regarded as a framework for redesigning the way we gather and analyze intelligence - not an absolute blueprint.

The job needs to be done both promptly and sensibly. One top official must be in charge and accountable, data should be consolidated in a single center available to analysts from all relevant agencies, and Congress needs to streamline its oversight of the process.

If lawmakers declare victory after achieving less, they shouldn't get away with it.

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