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Sept. 11 Commission wants shake-up of Congress

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, July 21 (UPI) -- The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks will call for a complete restructuring of the way Congress oversees the nation's intelligence and counter-terror agencies, according to lawmakers briefed on its recommendations.

The panel's final report, which is to be published Thursday, concludes that "we've got to get the structure (of Congress) right so that we can begin to deal expeditiously with closing the security gaps that we have," Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said Wednesday.

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Turner, who was briefed by commission members, said the report will recommend the establishment of permanent homeland-security committees in both chambers of Congress to oversee the newly formed department, which brought together 22 separate agencies last year.

The Senate currently does not have a Homeland Security Committee, and the House Committee is due to be dissolved at the end of the session unless the rules are changed to make it permanent.

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Turner said the panel also suggests two options for reform of the intelligence committees for lawmakers to consider.

"One would be a joint committee" of both chambers, he said, and the other is "more powerful intelligence committees in each house" with full powers to allocate and oversee the spending of money.

At the moment, intelligence funds are allocated, or appropriated, in congressional jargon, by special sub-committees, and the spending is overseen by an overlapping set of committees, including intelligence, defense and judiciary.

The panel also calls for an end to term limits on membership of the intelligence committees, according to a person familiar with the recommendations.

Turner said the panel was calling for reforms of the intelligence community in several areas, including information sharing within and between agencies, the gap between domestic and foreign intelligence and community management and leadership.

The panel would recommend the creation of a leadership post for the intelligence community, he said, with budget authority and the power to hire and fire.

During the commission's hearings, witnesses and panelists have repeatedly argued that the current position of director of central intelligence lacks the authority to set a strategic direction for the 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community.

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Several serving and former intelligence officials made reference to a memo circulated by CIA Director George Tenet in 1998 in which he declared the United States was "at war" with al-Qaida. Tenet lacked the authority to enforce that edict on the other 14 agencies, they said.

Without budgetary authority and the power to hire and fire, the director is a paper tiger in his role as head of the larger community, say critics.

"The bottom line is, there are only two phrases that really give you control in this town," Commissioner Tim Roemer told UPI. "'You're fired,' and 'Here's the money.'"

"We do discuss congressional oversight (of intelligence) at some length in our report," commission spokesman Al Felzenberg told UPI. "Congress wanted us to look at it. It is in the law" establishing the commission.

Roemer added that congressional reform was an integral part of the commission's mandate to fix the problems exploited by those who carried out the attacks of Sept. 11.

"Simply moving boxes around (on the organization chart) or creating new positions won't work without the other elements. You need the changes to the nuts and bolts and the tradecraft (of the intelligence community); you need the oversight piece," he said.

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Neither Felzenberg nor Roemer would comment in any way on the panel's findings or its recommendations. "You'll have to wait until Thursday for that," said Felzenberg.

But Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served on the House Intelligence Committee, agreed that term limits were a serious problem that needed addressing.

"By the time you've found your way around the budgetary process, the compartmentalized and covert operations, you are off (the panel)," he said, adding that this unbalanced the oversight equation very heavily in favor of the intelligence agencies.

He pointed out that membership of other more powerful committees, such as Ways and Means, which deals with taxes, was not term limited.

With longer membership, he said, "you build knowledge, you build expertise, you build relationships. ... You need that experience."

Almost half the agencies that make up the intelligence community -- and more than three-quarters of its budget -- are inside the Department of Defense and are overseen by the armed services committees. And the Justice and Judiciary committees in the House and Senate oversee the FBI, so oversight of the community is divided among three committees.

Roemer said that this overlapping jurisdiction was sometimes exploited by agencies to "short circuit and circumvent" the intent of lawmakers.

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"Some shared oversight is not a problem," he said, "but it becomes a convenient and often-used procedure for the agencies to get around the oversight and long-term policy recommendations of the intelligence committee."

Roemer also said lawmakers were hampered by the need to do so much of their work in secret. "You can't use the harsh flashlight of public criticism," to expose the agencies' shortcomings the way lawmakers on other committees do, he said.

The commission's hearing in May 2003 during which it heard from members of Congress, focused on the oversight issue. Though the commission has not publicly addressed the issue since, Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste told UPI recently that they had been busy behind the scenes.

"There has been a considerable amount of solicitation and exchange of views" with Capitol Hill, he said, pointing out that four members of the commission are former members of Congress.

Other proposals the commission is expected to make echo those made by the Joint Congressional Inquiry in its report of December 2002 -- including especially the creation of a new leadership position for the whole intelligence community.

During the commission's hearings, the case has several times been made that the dual role of the director of central intelligence as head of the whole intelligence community, but with real authority only over the CIA, is untenable.

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"We give the job to one guy, and the money to someone else," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., told UPI after his appearance before the commission in May last year.

The proposal for a new intelligence chief is not a novel one. Prior to the joint inquiry, it had been most recently proposed by Brent Scowcroft, a former Reagan national security adviser and now chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

But the idea was first floated in 1955, according to Acting Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin. McLaughlin opposes the creation of a new chief, arguing instead that the existing post should be beefed up.

"A good argument can be made for that (post)," he told Fox News last weekend. "It doesn't relate particularly to the world I live in. ... I think, with some modest changes in the way the CIA is set up, the director of central intelligence could carry out that function."

Scowcroft's report, which remains classified, proposed giving the existing CIA director budget, administrative and hire/fire control over the three largest and most expensive agencies, according to former Office of Management and Budget national security chief Richard Stubbings. The National Security Agency, which intercepts phone calls, faxes, e-mails and the like; the National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, builds and maintains spy satellites; and the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, which analyzes spy-satellite photos, would all be taken out of the Pentagon's control and transferred -- along with parts of the FBI -- to the control of a modified director post, he said.

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The Scowcroft proposal, like many before it, was stymied by resistance form the Department of Defense.

"It's sitting in Rumsfeld's bottom drawer," said one senior congressional intelligence staff member when asked what had become of the Scowcroft report.

In 1996 the Senate Intelligence Committee proposed giving the director of central intelligence budgetary and management authority over the whole community, but the bill was never passed into law.

One reason was the role of the congressional committees that oversee the Pentagon and have also traditionally been resistant to giving up their role as overseers of those intelligence agencies in the Defense Department.

"Turf is something anyone on the Hill will fight over," said one armed service committee staff member.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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