- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Rep. Duncan Hunter convened a hearing last week with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that put in place the final chess piece in a high-stakes battle to defeat the Senate’s version of a far-reaching intelligence reform bill.

Mr. Hunter, a California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee and is a key ally of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, already had secured a letter of support from Gen. Richard B. Myers, the Joint Chiefs chairman.

In the letter, Gen. Myers endorsed Mr. Hunter’s — not the Senate’s — version of the intelligence reform bill because it “maintains this vital flow of resources through the secretary of defense to the combat-support agencies,” that is, to intelligence collectors.

At the hearing, Mr. Hunter read the excerpt to the chiefs of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy. The four-star officers heartily endorsed Gen. Myers’ position.

Mr. Hunter now had the top brass behind him to defeat language in the Senate bill that he saw as giving a new director of national intelligence too much power to control the systems and product of Pentagon spy agencies. With Fallujah as a backdrop, Mr. Hunter worried that the Senate bill “translates into ineffectiveness on the battlefield and, at worse, combat casualties,” he told The Washington Times yesterday.

There is concern, as one Bush administration official said yesterday, that the Senate version would produce this scenario: Every time the generals want to move a satellite to help a war commander quickly obtain intercepted communications or overhead images of the enemy, they will have to get the new national director’s approval.

Largely through the force of Mr. Hunter’s argument, the key legislation to enact recommendations of the bipartisan September 11 commission stalled Saturday.

Gen. Myers’ letter, along with the chiefs’ testimony, enabled Mr. Hunter to persuade conservative Republicans to join in opposition.

“Reasonable legislators stopped and listened,” Mr. Hunter said yesterday. “That’s what the Republican conference did.”

Hopes for a compromise over the bill collapsed while President Bush was meeting in Chile with Latin American and Asian leaders. Mr. Bush has vowed to revive the legislation, raising questions about whether he will order the Pentagon’s top brass to back down.

In Chile, Mr. Bush did not address complaints that his own Pentagon scuttled the bill.

“Hopefully, we’ll get a bill done,” he said. “When I get home, I look forward to getting it done.”

Mr. Rumsfeld, administration officials say, privately expressed unhappiness that the press was blaming him for Congress’ rejection of the intelligence bill. Mr. Rumsfeld had expressed reservations about any bill that diluted the defense secretary’s power. But once the White House announced support of the Senate version, he stayed out of the House-Senate conference debate.

Of particular concern are three Defense Department agencies: the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the U.S. galaxy of spy satellites; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes the images; and the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications. They are generally referred to as “combat-support agencies.”

Their importance was underscored by the battle of Fallujah, where American troops relied heavily on satellite photos to plan the attack and then to watch the enemy during the fighting.

Mr. Hunter yesterday said Mr. Rumsfeld stayed out of the Senate-House fight. The congressman said Gen. Myers only wrote the Oct. 21 letter after the congressman telephoned him late at night during tough negotiations with senators and asked him to take a position.

“I solicited the Joint Chiefs to support me on this, not vice versa,” Mr. Hunter said. “I called Secretary Rumsfeld a few weeks ago, and he told me he was part of the team. … He could not engage in the conference. He’s always been up front.”

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “Secretary Rumsfeld has been a strong supporter of the president’s objectives. Intelligence reform is an important, but tough and complex matter. To suggest that one person — any person — is responsible for the Congress being unable to pass the intelligence bill is wrong and unfair to all those who are working on this important legislation.”

Mr. Hunter, a former Army Ranger whose Marine Corps son recently completed a tour in Iraq, said he believes deeply that the Senate bill would impede the military’s access to intelligence.

He said Stephen J. Hadley, the incoming White House national security adviser, wrote language in the intelligence bill to enforce the defense secretary’s relationship with his spy agencies, but senators rejected it.

Some congressional aides depicted the Myers letter as the Joint Chiefs chairman’s bucking the White House. But the Bush official pointed out that, as a condition to winning Senate confirmation, all chairmen pledge to give Congress their honest professional opinions.

And Mr. Hunter said: “This president likes to hear the plain, unvarnished positions of the chiefs.”

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