House forces negotiations over intelligence reform

Senators closely followed 9/11 panel's suggestions

House version adds power

October 09, 2004|By Sonni Efron | Sonni Efron,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A divided House approved an intelligence agency overhaul bill yesterday that differs sharply from a Senate version passed earlier and sets up a showdown between the two chambers over the shape of the final bill.

Opponents said the House bill, which passed 282 to 134, was laced with anti-immigrant provisions that had little to do with intelligence or national security.

GOP leaders said their bill would not only reform intelligence gathering, but also strengthen border security, help prevent identity theft, improve the ability of the Homeland Security Department to block terrorist travel and create a new post inside the department to head up cyber security.

The bipartisan Senate version of the bill passed Wednesday on a vote of 96-2.

House Republican leaders beat back attempts to make their bill conform more closely to the Senate version, saying it was not as tough or broad as the House version. Differences in the two versions raise questions about whether a compromise can be ready for President Bush's signature before the Nov. 2 election.

The vote in the House was largely along party lines - with eight Republicans voting no and 69 Democrats voting in support.

"This bill makes difficult choices," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. "And it will reaffirm the one fact that too often is ignored by too many: We are at war. And the first priority in this war is the protection of Americans."

Like its Senate counterpart, the House bill would create a national intelligence director in charge of the nation's 15 domestic and international spy agencies. The Sept. 11 Commission, whose July report inspired the legislation, had found that poor intelligence coordination among these agencies had made it easier for al-Qaeda to carry out its 2001 attacks.

Both bills would also create a national counterterrorism center to coordinate intelligence collection and analysis.

However, the House would have the intelligence director's budget go through the Defense Department, which now controls about 80 percent of intelligence spending. The Senate version would give budget authority to the intelligence director.

The Senate version would also declassify overall U.S. spending on intelligence, though it would not specify any details. The House would keep the intelligence budget a secret.

"We believe that telling our enemies how much we spend on certain intelligence programs diminishes our national security," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "Why should we give those who want to harm us any information that might help them?"

The House Republican leadership promised to promptly name the House delegation to a conference committee of House and Senate members who would try to reach a compromise between the two versions of the bill. Some House members foresaw tough negotiations ahead.

"We clearly need to have it done as soon as possible, but first and foremost, we have to make sure it makes America safer,"' said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, one of the eight Republicans who voted against the bill. He said he reluctantly decided to oppose the bill after the House defeated two amendments to delete provisions that were denounced as anti-immigrant.

The provisions would make it easier to deport without judicial review illegal aliens who have been in this country less than five years, and it would raise the standard of proof required of aliens attempting to claim refugee status.

"There's a lot of things to like in this bill," Diaz-Balart said. "There are a few issues I think just shouldn't be in here."

Deleted from the original House bill was a provision opposed by the White House as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. It would have allowed the deportation of terrorism suspects to countries where they might face torture.

In a last-minute compromise, the House passed an amendment by Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican, to bar the deportation of non-U.S. citizens to countries where they might face torture unless the secretary of state received diplomatic assurances that the suspects would be protected.

The amendment allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to detain any alien who cannot be deported and specifically disallows judicial review. This "court-stripping" provision is "an egregious assault on the right of the courts to review basic issues regarding the rights of a person who's been in detention," said ACLU legislative counsel Timothy Edgar.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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