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House, Senate diverge on 9/11 response

As clock winds down on 108th Congress, lawmakers focus on 9/11 commission goals.

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"Throughout the government, nothing has been harder for officials ... than to set priorities," the commission concluded. "Homeland security assistance should be based strictly on an assessment of risks and vulnerabilities." That means more money for Washington and New York, less for states like Wyoming: "Congress should not use this money as a pork barrel."

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Another key issue is the authority a new national intelligence director (NID) will have over budget and personnel decisions, most of which are now made in the Pentagon. The Defense Department currently controls 80 percent of intelligence spending. In the Senate, a turf battle is shaping up between the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, tasked with preparing legislation for the Senate floor, and the Armed Services Committee, which defends Pentagon prerogatives. The House version, and that proposed by the White House, assigns the NID less control over these issues than do either the 9/11 commission or the Senate.

While the Senate urges some disclosure of the intelligence budget, the House does not. "In the past, liberal Democrats have sought to publicize that number in order to increase the pressure to cut intelligence spending.... I believe that telling our enemies how much we spent ... diminishes our national security," said Speaker Dennis Hastert. The commission urged disclosing the overall intelligence budget.

In another controversial move, the House version includes enhancements for law enforcement not in the 9/11 commission report. Many of these appeared in a leaked Justice Department memo in January 2003, dubbed by critics "Patriot II," after the 2001 USA Patriot Act. These include greater authority to investigate lone-wolf terrorists, such as would-be airline shoe-bomber Richard Reid, or suspected terrorist sleeper cells. Under an expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, such parties could be targeted on the basis of less strict standards.

The proposed House version, to be marked up in committees this week, also mandates programs for pilots to carry firearms and sentences up to life imprisonment for terrorist hoaxes. "The House leadership bill is yet another veiled attempt to pass Patriot II piecemeal," says Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. "It's a virtual wish list for law enforcement that would undermine liberty."

What's not included

Conspicuous for its absence in both the House and main Senate version is an overhaul of congressional oversight of intelligence activities. "Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important," the commission concluded. Currently, 88 committees and subcommittees oversee security. "The American people may have to insist that these changes occur, or they may well not happen."

The commissioners, who continue to comment on legislation, back the Senate version, and, as of this writing, are studying the new House version. Some worry that if debate grows too partisan, as it is becoming in the House, reform will stall.

"We have desperately hoped for the welfare of the nation that this process does not become politicized," says 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat. There has been great progress ... up to this point, and it would be not only a shame, but shameful, if the process dissolved into trying to score political points."