Pentagon Called Major Factor in Defeat of Intelligence Bill

International Herald Tribune

New York Times

November 22, 2004

WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 - Lawmakers of both parties said today that the Pentagon played a clear role in the defeat of compromise legislation aimed at remaking United States intelligence agencies.

They said the failure to act had left only slender prospects of reform this year, although Republicans in Congress and the White House vowed to push the measure next month.

Some legislators said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had made clear his opposition to the proposed overhaul, which would have stripped the Pentagon of some budgetary control over its vast intelligence operations. A Defense Department spokesman denied any such Pentagon involvement.

The Senate intelligence committee chairman, Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, was asked why the Republican-controlled House had been unable to pass a measure sought by President Bush and endorsed by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission and many relatives of victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Some of it is turf, quite frankly," Mr. Roberts said on CNN, "some of it is from the Pentagon."

Mr. Roberts said he held little hope that Congress, in a brief session starting Dec. 6, could salvage efforts to address what he called systemic intelligence weaknesses, exposed dramatically by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the Iraq war.

The landmark bill, which would have created the post of national intelligence director to oversee American spy agencies, with authority over the bulk of their combined budgets, was blocked Saturday after what lawmakers said was practically a rebellion by some conservative House Republicans.

Asked about prospects for passage this year, Mr. Roberts quipped grimly that they were "between slim and none, and Slim just left town." He said on "Fox News Sunday," "Some of us who have been working for reform perhaps underestimated the strong undertow of opposition." A Senate version of the bill had passed with overwhelming support.

Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said on Fox that some House members "never wanted a bill, they never will want a bill."

Another Democrat, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, told CNN that the bill's failure represented a "real test" for Mr. Bush. "The president's going to have to stand up, both to his own Defense Department and to the hard right," Mr. Schumer said.

And Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation" that passage was still possible next month, but that it would "take significant involvement by the president and the vice president."

The turn of events was seen as a surprising embarrassment to the president, who as late as Friday night called on rebellious House Republicans to agree on a bill.

Vice President Dick Cheney, for his part, had personally called the man considered the leader of the House resistance, Representative Duncan Hunter, to urge passage of the compromise legislation. Mr. Hunter is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Democrats, and some Republicans, said the Pentagon was working to block legislation it saw as threatening its budgetary control over intelligence-development, and thus its ability to generate the intelligence needed in war-fighting.

Ms. Harman, who had helped fashion the compromise bill, said Mr. Rumsfeld had made it "absolutely clear" in congressional testimony that he opposed the changes, adding, that he "was resisting it, in public."

She said it was "unfortunate that the president, as commander-in-chief, couldn't get the secretary of defense to stop his opposition, which has been ongoing for months and which emboldened some of these House folks to dig in."

Ms. Harman pointed to a letter late last month from Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which he endorsed much of the House version of the bill - buttressing opposition to a compromise.

A senior Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona, said it was hard for him to believe that General Myers would have sent such a letter without consulting Mr. Rumsfeld.

"This is one of the more byzantine kinds of scenarios that I've observed," Mr. McCain said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press."

The proposed compromise came apart dramatically Saturday when House leaders withdrew it following objections from Mr. Hunter, a Rumsfeld ally. Mr. Hunter had long warned that the creation of a national intelligence director could place an obstacle between American troops fighting in Iraq and the timely intelligence they need.

The bill would have forced the Pentagon, which controls roughly 80 percent of the $40 billion United States intelligence budget, to yield much of its authority on intelligence matters to a new national intelligence director.

"That, to many people, is threatening, and there is a huge debate there," Dr. Frist said. He acknowledged that there was "no general agreement between the Pentagon and members of the White House."

What remained far from clear was whether Mr. Rumsfeld or other Pentagon leaders were defying President Bush or perhaps quietly working in the same direction.

One theory was that Mr. Bush wanted changes in the bill, but wanted to be credited publicly with supporting intelligence reform; and that he was perhaps looking toward passage next year, by an even more supportive Congress, of a bill closer to his liking.

Mr. Roberts, referring to opposition to the bill, said, "Some of it, quite frankly, is from the White House, despite what the president has said."

It was also possible that conservative House Republicans, energized by their party's election victory Nov. 2, were digging in their heels in the sort of rebellion that could become troublesome as Mr. Bush tries to steer his second-term agenda through the next Congress.

Ms. Harman said it would be difficult now to gain passage of the reforms.

"I thought it was a fair, tough compromise - the stars and moon were aligned, and these few folks embarrassed the speaker of the house, embarrassed the president of the United States and sadly set us back," she said.

Any further changes to the bill to overcome resistance from the conservative House Republicans, she said, would "unglue all the careful compromises."

Mr. Roberts expressed some impatience with resistance from Pentagon allies. As a former marine, he said, he simply would not support a bill that meant that "war fighters will be endangered in time of war."

"If somebody doesn't understand that there is a systemic problem in the intelligence community, all 15 agencies, and that we need reform, they're like an ostrich," he said.

Stansfield Turner, who was director of central intelligence under President Jimmy Carter, said on CNN that he saw, in the opposition to intelligence reform, "the last throes of the military-industrial-congressional complex that was built up by the Cold War."

"We're now trying to shift the paradigm" of intelligence work toward a war against terrorism, he said, and that meant that "the military is no longer the primary user of our intelligence."