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Congress Works to Reform the Intelligence Community

October 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Congress’ plans to overhaul the way the government gathers, shares and analyzes intelligence are responses to the work and recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

But the doggedness of the families of the 9/11 victims pushed members of Congress to resolve their differences and deliver an intelligence reform bill for the president to sign before the November elections.

CARIE LE MACK: The amount of resources this government has invested in past three years is astonishing, but what a shame to let it all end now.

And it could be for naught, all of this work, if the Senate and the House conferees cannot come to a bipartisan bill that can be sent to the president’s desk before the election, only 13 days from now.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the victim families were front-row witnesses this morning as negotiators from the House and Senate tried to find some middle ground in the respective versions of their intelligence reform legislation. Peter Hoekstra is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: We share much of the same constructs as to how we are going to solve this problem. So in many ways I think we have much more in common than what separates us.

RAY SUAREZ: But there are still significant differences. Both bills create a national counterterrorism center to act as a clearing house for terrorism-related intelligence. Both bills also establish the position of national intelligence director.

But the Senate bill gives the new director strong authority over operational budgets and personnel decisions. The House bill does not. Susan Collins chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee that produced the Senate bill with unanimous bipartisan support.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: If we’re not going to give strong authority to the new national intelligence director, he or she cannot possibly be effective.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile the House bill, written solely by House Republicans, contains several controversial provisions the Senate bill does not. For instance, it speeds up deportation of illegal immigrants charged with crimes. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier:

REP. DAVID DREIER: It’s important that we do remember that securing our borders is one of the most important steps we can take in pursuit of safety and prevention.

RAY SUAREZ: The House bill also expands government surveillance of foreigners to those who may not have any connection to any foreign state or known terrorist group. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner:

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: We don’t have the luxury to wait a year or two or twenty-five to address these vital reforms, as some have suggested. We need to be comprehensive, and we need to be unafraid.

RAY SUAREZ: Whether the additional provisions in the house bill survive these negotiations will determine whether a final bill can emerge. House Democrat Robert Menendez took immediate exception to the deportation provision.

REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: This in essence could result in summary deportation of people who are at risk for serious harm if they are deported, including battered women, children, victims of human trafficking, all who have legal claims and have a right to make those claims before an immigration judge. And if we have someone in our detention, in our possession, and they happen to be a terrorist, I don’t want to deport them; I want to prosecute them. I want them in jail.

RAY SUAREZ: Senate Democrat Richard Durbin argued there simply isn’t time to debate the additional provisions in the house bill.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I don’t disagree for a moment that we should have a vigorous, extensive and complete debate about the Patriot Act, but if we try to do this in this Conference Committee, my friends, we are going to be here for months without producing a product.

I also think it’s long overdue to have an extensive, thorough, honest debate about immigration in America. It’s an important issue. But if we take that on in this Conference Committee, we’re not going to finish the work of the 9/11 Commission report. We have to make a choice here.

RAY SUAREZ: The White House yesterday sent a letter to the negotiators urging they reach an agreement on an effective bill and offered suggestions on how to do that. And this afternoon, Chairman Hoekstra said he and his House Republican colleagues would take those suggestions and try to work them into a revised proposal.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: And we’re preparing what we think is a good-faith global effort, a global product to give to the conference.

RAY SUAREZ: But that drew the ire of Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

REP. JANE HARMAN: Whatever you are planning to do has not been discussed with me, at all, and I object to this process. And I would question the usefulness of a Republican House product being introduced this late in the process.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, Sen. Collins suggested that she and her committee’s ranking Democrat, Joseph Lieberman, along with Representatives Hoekstra and Harman, meet in private to discuss how the conference can proceed in a bipartisan direction.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: This is just a way to start the process forward. And I think if we go in feeling that something has not been kosher… ( laughter) see, he’s had a great influence on me… (laughter) …then we won’t accomplish what we firmly believe needs to be accomplished.

RAY SUAREZ: At that, this first meeting of the negotiators ended with no clear indication when they might next meet, when they might produce an intelligence reform bill, or even if they will.