We may have dodged a bullet. In its postelection lame duck session, the 108th Congress continued resisting intense pressure to approve a bill purporting to fix the U.S. intelligence community.
Unless legislators are compelled to return after Thanksgiving for this purpose, the nation will have been spared a well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive plan — one that purportedly addresses problems with the excessive bureaucracy and insufficient competitive intelligence collection and analysis, yet in ways certain to result in more of the former and less of the latter.
Thanks for this stay of execution are due principally to three chairmen: the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Air Force Gen. Richard Myers and Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, leaders respectively of the House Armed Services and House Judiciary Committees.
For their courage in the face of intense pressure from the September 11 Commission and families, the White House, other legislators and the press, these men have earned this column’s coveted “Horatius at the Bridge” award, named for the ancient Roman who, according to legend, saved his city by singlehandedly blocking an enemy horde.
Unlike the centuries-spanning fame earned by Horatius for his feat, those who have recently performed with similar valor received nothing but harsh criticism. Presumably, this is because advocates of the intelligence reform bill understand a simple reality: The only way their legislation — or at least some of its most dubious provisions — could become law is if Congress were denied the opportunity fully to consider and debate such “reforms.”
It is no small irony that, at the same moment these Horatii are being castigated for opposing haste-makes-waste legislating, Capitol Hill is in tumult over language in another bill — the omnibus appropriations act — that could only have been adopted under similar circumstances.
In the latter case, when no one was looking, a couple of staffers reportedly inserted a wildly controversial provision affording heretofore unimaginable congressional access to individuals tax returns.
The bipartisan outrage over this dark-of-night maneuver was expressed Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who rightly called it a prime example of how “the [legislative] system is broken.” Unfortunately, the same broken system produced the current September 11 intelligence reform bill. In both cases, far-reaching decisions about the legislation’s final form were made behind closed doors by a handful of senators, representatives and staff. In both cases, artificial deadlines and the leadership’s understandable desire to control the process affords the rest of Congress scarcely any opportunity even to review what is served up, let alone propose and adopt changes.
As a result, were it not for a warning several weeks ago from Gen. Myers, there is every likelihood the defective intelligence reform bill would by now have been signed into law. Thanks, however, to the JCS chairman’s prompt expression of concern about the bill’s effect on the timeliness and quality of intelligence provided U.S. war-fighters, that has not happened.
Armed with Gen. Myers’ letter, the Armed Services Committee’s Mr. Hunter redoubled his campaign against, among other provisions, the bill’s transfer of direction and budgetary authority over defense intelligence programs from the defense secretary to a newly created director of national intelligence.
Some critics have seen in Myers’ intervention the hand of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who they would like to topple.
The “reformers” find this explanation less inconvenient than the far more plausible alternative: The apolitical, straight-shooting Gen. Myers is persuaded that, from the military’s point of view, the legislation is ill-advised, strategically and tactically. To his credit, Gen. Myers had the guts to speak that truth to power.
Mr. Hunter was joined in his opposition at a decisive meeting Saturday of the House Republican caucus by Mr. Sensenbrenner, who was appalled at the conferees’ decision to remove several provisions added by the House of Representatives. These were designed to counter terrorists seeking via illegal immigration to get into, and operate within, the United States. Enough Republican House members agreed with these committee chairmen that Speaker Dennis Hastert decided to forgo a vote until no earlier than next month.
In the days ahead, there surely will be demands that Congress force the intelligence bill through in December. Democrats will argue that would be the sine qua non of bipartisan cooperation: Unless the president imposes lockstep discipline on his party, he invites even more aggressive use of obstructionist tactics by the opposition. The press will make hay with Mr. Bush’s seeming inability to bend Republican congressional leaders and rank-and-file to his will. And within his own party, some will contend this legislation is necessary, if not to prevent a future terrorist attack on our homeland at least keep Republicans from being blamed for it.
The truth is very different. The president, the nation’s security and that of the American people will be better served if intelligence reform is undertaken next year in a more deliberative, patient and orderly way. We should all be grateful to the three Horatii at the Bridge who made that possible.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.