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Congress Debates Bills on the 9/11 Commission’s Reform Proposals

September 7, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Many members of Congress spent a good part of their August recess right here at the Capitol, in the hearing rooms of various House and Senate committees, those that hold oversight over the nation’s intelligence-gathering agencies. Their summer plans changed in late July, soon after the commission investigating the 9/11 disaster issued its final report.

The report quickly became a bestseller. 9/11 family members demanded swift action on the Commission’s calls for reform. And the presidential candidates, each careful not to yield political advantage on the issue, asked Congress to act as well. So, 14 committees and their subcommittees held two dozen hearings during the month of August, calling more than 100 witnesses.

SPOKESPERSON: The Democratic leader is recognized.

KWAME HOLMAN: And as the full Senate reconvened at noon today, Minority Leader Tom Daschle was the first of several members to renew the call for action.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: The ideas are there. The leadership has been lacking. It is up to us with the time we have now to provide that leadership.

KWAME HOLMAN: Soon after that, Senators McCain, Lieberman, Specter and Bayh, Congressman Shays and Congresswoman Maloney, appeared together to introduce a new bipartisan approach to intelligence reform, legislation that adopts all of what the 9/11 Commission has recommended.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: By, among other things, creating a national intelligence authority as an independent agency outside of the White House with a strong director and real budget authority. The bill also creates a national counterterrorism center, second major recommendation of the commission, to pull together the missions of our many different intelligence agencies.

The bill would establish a far-reaching information sharing network to promote the sharing of intelligence and homeland security information throughout the federal, state, and local governments. Develop an integrated system to ensure adequate screening at the nation’s entry points internal transportation systems and critical infrastructure; make it harder to acquire fraudulent birth certificates, driver’s license and other forms identification terrorists hind behind; put in place a structure to make sure that civil liberties and privacy are protected as we necessarily increase the role of government to protect the American people from terrorism; and, finally, enact congressional reorganization to provide better oversight of intelligence and homeland security by Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Keane was pleased.

TOM KEANE: This is a dream that all of us had on the Commission as we were meeting and talking with each other, five Republicans and five Democrats. We recognize the fact that a lot of commissions have been there and we had no problem that we could tell the story of 9/11. What haunted us was the possibility that we’d make recommendations to make the American people safer and, like other commissions, nobody would do anything about them. So this is our dream.

KWAME HOLMAN: And at mid-afternoon, the first hearing of the just-reconvened session was held by the Senate Intelligence Committee, again on the issue of intelligence reform. Committee Chairman Pat Roberts:

SEN. PAT ROBERTS: If we don’t make the hard choices now, I fear that after yet another series of intelligence failures, we may be right back in this hearing room listening to the national intelligence director testify that he still lacks real authority to control budgets, to manage personnel, to transfer funds, and mandate intelligence- sharing procedures and technology.

KWAME HOLMAN: Roberts has called for a complete overhaul of the intelligence community, stripping the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department of most of their intelligence gathering authority, and reorganizing it under a national director and four assistants. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner has said he’s reluctant to have the Pentagon give up its intelligence-gathering control, and Congressman Porter Goss feels the same way about the CIA Goss is the president’s choice to head the CIA His nomination will be considered by Pat Roberts and the Senate Intelligence Committee during an all-day hearing tomorrow. And when the House of Representatives convened today, Majority Leader Tom DeLay took a go-slow approach to intelligence reform.

REP. TOM DeLAY: You know, when the commission issued its report, many rushed to either condemn or rubberstamp their recommendations. But we in majority took a novel approach: We actually read them. Congress cannot in good conscience satisfy itself with a watered-down, politically convenient bill, that just scotch tapes over a few vulnerabilities.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the biggest hurdle to intelligence reform, repeated by several members today, could be battles fought by committees unwilling to give up the oversight authority they hold over the current intelligence structure. Sen. John McCain:

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: In normal times, nay sayers would caution that the fact alone could paralyze the senate. These are not normal times. International terrorism poses a real and present danger and it is our responsibility to take action on the commission’s recommendations, regardless of committee or party or jurisdiction or turf.

KWAME HOLMAN: And on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Bill Frist.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Our national defense requires no less than a new unified effort, bipartisan effort, to transform the Senate to meet these new threats.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congress meanwhile has six weeks, at most, to turn all of the recommendations and testimony into legislation both Houses can pass and the president will sign, before members leave again to campaign for the November elections.