Monday, September 27, 2004

Avoiding Distractions

The New York Times
September 27, 2004
Avoiding Distractions

The outlines are barely set for Congress's landmark attempt to overhaul the failed American intelligence system, yet House Republicans are already trying to turn this week's debate into a pre-election brawl aimed more at scoring phony patriotic points than at passing meaningful laws. The House bill relegates intelligence reform to a bit part in a partisan hodgepodge of seamy proposals to crimp civil liberties in the name of preventing terrorism. Fortunately, in the Senate, a commendably bipartisan effort has produced a clean bill to empower a national intelligence director and counterterrorism center and straighten out the 15 intelligence agencies now stumbling at cross-purposes.

It will take a real effort by President Bush, a late convert to the warnings of the independent 9/11 commission, to save the more substantive approach of the Senate bill and end any suspicion that the White House might privately prefer the House's attempt to turn this overriding issue into a political cudgel. What is needed is a thorough overhaul as recommended by the 9/11 panel, with a new intelligence director endowed with the fullest possible budgetary and personnel powers.

House Republicans would muddle this priority by attaching a raft of controversial proposals that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, but instead amount to a needless reaffirmation and expansion of the Patriot Act. These measures - which would make it far easier for police to investigate, detain and deport noncitizens on the basis of ill-defined suspicions - are detritus from earlier attempts to bulk up the worst parts of that law. Speaker Dennis Hastert hailed the move as a weapon for the "prevention and prosecution" of terrorists. But the House proposals seem more like a poison pill aimed at scuttling the chances for intelligence reform. Leaders of the Democratic minority as well as alarmed Republican moderates should stand against this distraction and give the nation what it needs, a real debate over an uncluttered law.

The basic ingredients are clear: to supercede existing agencies with an intelligence director and counterterrorism center able to organize and manage the nation's overall needs, down to allocating funds and shifting personnel. This means hands-on authority over the mission and the means, and it means the director of central intelligence must stay in place and not be elevated to the new job.

The Senate bill is fiercely resisted by miffed Defense officials and turf-jealous committee lions. Sponsored by Susan Collins of Maine and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, it would end the Pentagon's chokehold on most of the $40 billion intelligence budget - and declassify at least its broad outlines. Contrary to claims by the bill's opponents, the Pentagon would suffer no loss of tactical intelligence on the battlefield.

The House also has brushed aside the 9/11 panel's warning that "dysfunctional'' oversight by Congress was integral to the intelligence failures. The Senate is studying whether to change its ossified committee structure in which the flow of intelligence funds means power.

The House's attempt to force more "crackdown" measures into the debate does serve one useful purpose. It makes emphatically clear that the antiterrorism effort needs an independent civil liberties watchdog like the one included in the Senate bill. Passing clean legislation in the shadow of Election Day is a daunting task. But Congress cannot escape its duty to finally repair the institutional failures that left the country so vulnerable before 9/11 and so wrong before the invasion of Iraq.