- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Rarely has a national security issue of major importance become a subject of distortion and spin like the debate over the intelligence reform bill on Capitol Hill — the outcome of which will determine how U.S. intelligence agencies and our military function for a generation to come. This is particularly true of the heated debate now taking place over how much power should be given to a new director of national intelligence.

Along with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, one of the most respected defense experts on Capitol Hill, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other elements within the Defense Department have raised serious questions about the far-reaching authority granted to the intelligence director under the Senate version of the bill. Specifically, Mr. Hunter believes that the Senate bill would interfere with the military’s access to intelligence on the battlefield.

Right now, Mr. Hunter points out, Army units, Marines and U.S. special forces use intelligence gleaned from overhead satellites to target enemy troops. In order to do this, they need to work closely with combat support agencies like the National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office. It is essential that there be a well-functioning chain of command between the American troops on the ground, the Defense Department and the people who operate the satellites. This was particularly critical during the recent fighting in Fallujah, where American troops relied on satellite photos to watch the terrorists they were seeking to kill.

Athough President Bush has agreed to the Senate proposal, administration officials acknowledge there is real concern that its version of the bill could undercut a system that is working well. As one official told this newspaper on Monday, the Senate measure could produce the following scenario: Every time the generals want to move a satellite to help a commander quickly obtain overhead images of the enemy or intercepted communications, they would have to get the approval of the new director of national intelligence. Noting the Fallujah experience, Mr. Hunter adds that the Senate bill “translates into ineffectiveness on the battlefield and, at worse, combat casualties.”

When asked to give his opinion on the Senate bill and an alternative measure proposed by Mr. Hunter that would preserve the current chain of command, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed the California Republican lawmaker’s version. So, too, have the heads of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy. The truth is that the very idea of shifting control of defense intelligence agencies away from the Pentagon (as embodied in the Senate bill) is a proposal to “fix” a nonexistent problem: When Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, chairman and vice chairman of the September 11 commission, testified on Capitol Hill, both acknowledged in response to a question from Mr. Hunter their panel had come across no specific instance of a failure or negligence on the part of a Department of Defense agency.

Unfortunately, the response from some senators and some sectors of the press to Mr. Hunter’s substantive concerns has been to portray him as undermining national security in order to preserve his bureaucratic turf. At one level, these charges are slanderous, given that Mr. Hunter’s son, a Marine, just completed a tour of duty in Iraq. Chairman Hunter is trying to protect his son, and all other young heroes — not his turf. If supporters of the Senate bill have substantive arguments to make that would explain why they are right and the Joint Chiefs and Mr. Hunter are wrong, they should make them. If not, they should accede to the House position. If the Senate refuses to budge, then the best course of action would be to revisit the issue next year.

Mr. Hunter is not the only lawmaker who has unjustly had his motives impugned. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner has been maligned for working to see to it that provisions making it harder for illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses are not stripped from the bill. For supporting Messrs. Hunter and Sensenbrenner, the overwhelming majority of House Republicans are wrongly being blamed by some sectors of the media for Congress’s inability to pass an intelligence reform measure. But in reality, Messrs. Hunter and Sensenbrenner and their Republican colleagues should be commended for working to strengthen the intelligence reform bill.

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