Congressional negotiators reached a deal Monday with one of two key House Republicans opposing a sweeping overhaul of the nation's intelligence establishment, moving one step closer to passing reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 commission last summer.
Negotiators say they have struck a deal that assuages the objections of Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (CA). Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (WI) reportedly remains opposed to the deal.
Prior to the Nov. 2 election, President Bush had said he backed the Sept. 11 commission's proposed reforms, effectively committing himself to back the legislation. House and Senate negotiators reached a tentative agreement on intelligence legislation on Nov. 20, but House GOP leaders rejected the deal.
Many see this week's brief closing session of the 108th Congress as the last chance for intelligence reform. On Monday, the president reiterated his call for Congress to pass the legislation.
"It is a good piece of legislation," the president said. "It is a necessary piece of legislation. It's a piece of legislation that is important for the security of our country."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert had refused to move the bill to a vote before the Thanksgiving holiday, saying he wanted the bill passed — but only with the support a majority of House Republicans.
Two key sticking points had stalled negotiations:
· Director of National Intelligence — The legislation would create a director of national intelligence with power over all 15 federal intelligence agencies, including three housed in the Defense Department. Hunter has argued that shifting that authority over to the national intelligence director risks creating confusion in the chain of command. Monday's deal presumably addresses this concern.
The shift in authority would also mean that the Armed Services Committee would lose oversight of those three agencies, which absorb 80 percent of the intelligence budget each year.
· Immigration & Driving Law Changes — Sensenbrenner has insisted that the intelligence reform bill include tightened immigration controls, including provisions that would make it easier to deport illegal immigrants without judicial review and would bar states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Both provisions were left out of the Nov. 20 conference agreement, with promises that they'd be dealt with later.
Key Provisions of the Bill
The tentative deal House and Senate negotiators struck on Nov. 20 included the following provisions:
· National Counterterrorism Center — The deal reached Nov. 20 would create a counterterrorism center with authority to plan intelligence and counterterrorism operations. But the center's director wouldn't have the authority over how civilian or military agencies execute these missions.
· Standardized Driver's License Rules — The measure would require states to follow uniform standards in terms of who is eligible for a driver's license and what documents are accepted in order for a license to be issued.
· Screening Interviews for Visa Applicants — Applicants would need to go through an in-person interview before receiving U.S. visas.
· Aviation and Border Security — The legislation includes provisions for new programs to boost airport and airplane security. The U.S. would also add at least 2,000 new border security agents and use unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the border with Canada. In addition, the Homeland Security Department would get more space to house detained illegal aliens and terrorism suspects.
· Civil Liberties Oversight — The agreement would create an independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
· Expanded FBI Powers — The FBI would be allowed to wiretap and spy on suspected terrorists, even if they have no ties to a foreign power (a requirement for such spying to occur under current law.)
· Diplomatic Provisions — Following closely the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, the agreement provides funds for diplomatic overtures such as aid to Afghanistan and scholarships for Muslim students. It also calls for more dialogue with Saudi Arabia.