Having It Both Ways on Intelligence Reform

Congress has gone home for Thanksgiving without finishing the intelligence reform bill. President Bush says he's disappointed but looks forward to the bill being revived before year's end.

It could happen. But don't hold your breath.

Officially, Congress is talking about a return on Dec. 6 for one more swipe at the most thorough overhaul of U.S. intelligence since the National Security Act of 1947. But it was easy to find people on Capitol Hill wagging their heads when asked about such a session.

The precedents are clear. Once the appropriations are done and the debt limit has been lifted, Congress does not return in December of its own free will.

Of course, if President Bush wanted to, he could order Congress back to work by calling a special session. But was he really that disappointed at the way things worked out?

This bill on the brink is the final fruit of the bipartisan commission on the terror attacks of Sept. 11, co-chaired by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton. The administration initially resisted the panel's creation, then allowed top officials to cooperate only grudgingly. The president was willing to testify only in the presence of the vice president — and vice versa – and then only in the absence of recording equipment.

Moreover, the administration is right now in the midst of cleaning house at the CIA with a broom of its own, newly appointed CIA director Porter Goss. Why should it want to interrupt that process to adopt the ideas of a commission it did not control?

"It's very clear I wanted a bill passed," the president said Sunday, defending his role after the Capitol had cleared out. "I spoke to key members of the House."

Surely a few well-chosen words to key members of the House were what was needed (the House failed even to vote on the final compromise). But did the president speak the right words? Did he send the all-important messages of urgency and potential consequences that members listen for?

James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his talk with the president was cordial and businesslike. Yet Sensenbrenner remained opposed to the bill, at least in part because he had wanted to add several provisions tightening immigration. Those provisions were dropped by the negotiators for the House and Senate who produced the final bill.

Nor did the president twist the arm of the other House chairman who was supposed to be holding up the bill, Duncan Hunter of California, who chairs the Armed Services Committee. Hunter has had doubts for months about letting a new Director of National Intelligence set budgets for intelligence functions in the Department of Defense.

In the end, the sticking point might not have been Hunter or Sensenbrenner, both of whom had given considerable ground. The final problem was that House Speaker Dennis Hastert was not willing to pass the bill on Democratic votes (which were available in abundance). His spokesman said the House GOP leaders did not even want to bring the bill to the floor so long as most of the rank and file Republicans were against it.

That's their prerogative, of course. But that's exactly where the president could so easily step in, if he really wanted the bill. When this president puts his shoulder to the wheel of this Congress — particularly this House — the wheel turns. When one party runs everything in Washington, a lack of White House ardor for a bill can be tantamount to outright opposition.

President Bush could go on TV to announce that the bill had the votes to prevail and that America's safety and the 9-11 victims' families demanded an up-or-down vote. Could the Speaker resist that sort of pressure?

It's not likely he'll have to. The White House has allowed the intelligence reform bill to take its course throughout the fall, pledging support but investing little time or effort. As a result, it has not had to deal with the effects of its passage, and it has not had to bear the blame for its being scuttled.

In fact, the White House may well be of two minds about the bill itself. In early fall, when the Senate version of the bill had already received the president's official blessing, Gen Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a letter to the House strongly objecting to elements of the Senate bill. He said the portion of the nation's intelligence spending (estimated at $25 billion annually) now controlled by the Pentagon should remain that way.

Myers' position made sense, of course. Who would expect the military to give up budget control for its own intelligence operations? But it was striking to hear the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs directly contradict the stated position of the president. Mike Parker, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, expressed a far less consequential dissent from administration policy at a budget hearing in 2001. He was gone almost overnight.

So we must conclude one of two things. Either the White House made an exception from its usual "one voice" rule for Myers or the White House has a policy other than its official stated position when it comes to intelligence reform. Perhaps that real policy could be described as "having it both ways." The White House wants to turn a friendly face to the families of 9-11 victims, but still assure the Pentagon will be kept whole.

Haven't we seen this movie before? First, there was the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, which the administration neither opposed nor actively supported. In the end, the president wanted credit for capping some forms of campaign spending but rejected blame for elements of the bill that conservatives saw as restricting free speech. And to some degree he had it both ways.

In September, the president reiterated his willingness to sign a bill extending the ban on certain kinds of assault weapons. This fulfilled a promise the president had made when running for president in 2000. But the president was spared a signing ceremony on this occasion because the House never voted on the extension. Was there a woodshed session for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who said he would not bring the assault weapons ban to the floor? Of course not.

Most everyone has concluded that the president was glad to have the gun ban expire and equally pleased not to have its carcass on his doorstep in an election year. The intelligence reform is a much bigger issue, but signs of a replay are hard to miss.

Perhaps this conclusion is wrong. If so, proving it wrong could not be easier. All the White House has to do is call Congress back into session in December and demand that it pass the intelligence reform in the language last agreed to by House and Senate negotiators. Then we can see who's really standing in the way.

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