House leader says action on Sept. 11 reforms unlikely this year
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress isn’t likely to undertake major revisions of the nation’s intelligence operations this year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert says, casting doubt on the Sept. 11 commission’s push for immediate changes once its final report is released.
The independent commission unveils its 500-plus-page report Thursday. It will detail significant intelligence lapses and other government failures that allowed the terrorist hijackings to succeed, but won’t make the politically explosive conclusion that the attacks were preventable.
The panel of five Republicans and five Democrats also will call for a new Cabinet-level intelligence chief and recommend combining the House and Senate intelligence committees and removing term limits from committee members, according to GOP House leaders who were informally briefed on the report Tuesday.
“It is time to put somebody in charge of the entire intelligence community, and give that person the budgetary and statutory authority to accomplish the job,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has introduced a bill to create the position and has bipartisan support from five colleagues.
But some Republicans and Democrats are worried such a position would become too political by giving the normally apolitical intelligence chief a seat at the president’s policy-making table.
Hastert, R-Ill., said any legislative action on the panel’s recommendations probably won’t occur until after the next president is inaugurated in January, given the limited time Congress has remaining this year.
“It’s a very difficult time to squeeze out and have the oversight and the testimony to put new legislation in place,” Hastert said.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., called the proposal to remove term limits a “particularly bad idea,” saying committee members would become overly ingrained within the intelligence community. Currently, limits are set at eight years for senators and six years for House members, with some exceptions.
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, a former New Jersey governor, and Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, were to brief President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez on the panel’s findings Wednesday, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said. The chairmen are to personally present Bush with a copy of the report on Thursday.
Commissioners plan an aggressive lobbying effort in the summer and fall to push recommended changes. The panel will split into bipartisan pairs and travel nationwide for speaking engagements and media appearances.
“Commissioners have all said they hoped the report would not just go on a shelf as so many others have,” commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said. “They said they hoped both presidential campaigns would endorse the recommendations and Congress would act.”
In recent interviews with The Associated Press, commissioners said the report will fault Congress for poor oversight of intelligence gathering and criticize government agencies for their emergency responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The harshest criticism will be leveled at the FBI and CIA, with the panel citing poor information sharing and intelligence analysis as key factors that allowed the hijackers to carry out their plot. But it won’t make the broad assessment that the attacks could have been stopped.
In the end, the commission did not want to draw a conclusion on that major point, believing it could open the way to partisan sniping in a presidential election year. Both Kean and Hamilton have said the attacks conceivably could have been prevented.
“My personal view is that the intelligence system we have has been broken for a long time,” said Republican commissioner John Lehman, a former Navy secretary. “But we wanted to let the American people make up their mind. They don’t need our editorializing.”
Commissioners say the facts could lead readers to conclude the attacks were preventable had the government done a better job following up on intelligence tips and tracking the 19 hijackers, some of whom entered the country illegally.
Commissioners have said it is important for them to endorse the report unanimously so their findings and recommendations are not seen as partisan. A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found 61 percent of Americans believe the commission has done a good job. The support was nearly even among Republicans and Democrats.
Still, the report is expected to provide fodder for arguments in the presidential campaign.
Advisers to Democratic candidate John Kerry have said they hope to use the report to show that in the summer of 2001 the Bush administration was inattentive to threats of a possible attack.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, was under fresh scrutiny after federal authorities said they were investigating former national security adviser Sandy Berger in connection with the disappearance of highly classified terrorism documents.
Berger said he inadvertently took copies of some documents from the National Archives and later returned them but could not locate two or three copies of a highly classified report that concerned al-Qaida threats during the December 1999 millennium celebration.
Felzenberg, the commission spokesman, said the Berger probe wouldn’t affect the panel’s final report.
Associated Press Writer Katherine Pfleger Shrader contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Sept. 11 Commission: http://www.9-11commission.gov