Sept. 11 reform facing hurdle

Bid to simplify Congress' dealings with intelligence could trigger turf battles

November 27, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Democratic leaders in Congress are vowing to implement the Sept. 11 commission's unfinished agenda early next year, but doing so could prompt a power struggle that ends up blocking a key recommendation -- one that would require powerful members of Congress to surrender some of their clout.

In its 2004 report, the commission proposed that Congress vastly simplify its dealings with national intelligence. The commission advised either letting one committee in each chamber oversee intelligence matters or establishing a single, joint House-Senate committee to do it, centralizing the fragmented authority that is now given to at least 10 panels.

If put into effect, that would mean an enormous expansion of power for members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. But the proposal has gone nowhere because senior lawmakers have been unwilling to give up control over their piece of the intelligence world.

"This is the time to do it," said Thomas H. Kean, who chaired the commission. The Democrats "campaigned on implementing all the recommendations."

But Kean said it will be difficult to streamline Congress' handling of intelligence because Democratic leaders will have to take on "old bulls" who have been waiting for years to return to power.

Democrats say that they'll approve the commission's recommendations on the second day of the new Congress in January. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California intends to propose a new committee setup, said her spokesman Drew Hammill.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he plans to implement "most" of the commission's recommendations. A spokesman said Reid isn't sure yet how to handle the congressional reforms.

"It is an issue that has to be dealt with," said the spokesman, Jim Manley, who described the realignment of committee authority as a "tough" problem.

In their report, the Sept. 11 commissioners called the congressional reforms "among the most difficult and important" and concluded that "so long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want or need."

The Senate voted down a proposal in 2004 that would have consolidated intelligence policy and spending responsibilities into one committee.

Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who is set to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was a chief opponent. He may well obstruct any effort to diminish his authority next year.

Tim Roemer, a Democrat who served on the commission, said reforming the way Congress deals with intelligence is "going to be difficult to pull off, but it's absolutely essential for all the reforms to work in their entirety."

At least 10 committees, five in each chamber, are responsible for elements of national intelligence. These include the panels that oversee national defense, intelligence and overall government spending. The committees responsible for justice and foreign affairs also deal with intelligence issues.

Without a single, central panel overseeing intelligence, oversight is nearly impossible, Roemer maintained.

"That has been missing and broken, and it's our hope that congressional reform will be an important part of what happens in the next few months," he said.

Family members of Sept. 11 victims plan to join the former commissioners in lobbying Congress to make the changes.

Mary Fetchet, who founded Voices of September 11th after her son died in the World Trade Center, said she had discovered how difficult it was to monitor the intelligence agencies when everyone -- and no one -- was in charge.

"Efforts are duplicated," she said. "The oversight is almost nonexistent."

After the commission released its recommendations in July 2004, Congress made modest changes.

The Senate eliminated its term limit for members of the Intelligence Committee, agreeing with the commission that after eight years, members are just gaining expertise in the complexities of intelligence.

In the House, the Intelligence Committee formed a subcommittee on oversight but retained its eight-year limit, though the rule does not apply to the panel's most senior members.

Kean said the window for making changes will close quickly.

"If you can't do it now, you're not going to be able to do it later," he said, adding that Pelosi would "like to do it. The problem is whether she can do it, given the political dynamics in her own party."

The family members and the former commissioners were also hopeful that the Democrats would take another look at other unfulfilled recommendations, including more robust plans for preventing terrorists from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

That issue is particularly urgent "as we see North Korea, Iran and the Axis of Evil getting even stronger on the nuclear front," Roemer said.

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