WASHINGTON – The House voted early Thursday to create an independent commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, despite opposition by the White House and many Republicans.
The vote for the commission came as the House approved the biggest funding increase for intelligence agencies in years. The figures are classified, but a Democratic leadership aide said spending would be 25 percent more than the amount approved last year. It is believed to be more than $35 billion, larger than what President Bush had requested.
The independent commission was approved 219-188 as an amendment to the intelligence bill by Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., with Democrats voting overwhelmingly in its favor and Republicans mostly opposed.
It calls for a panel of experts, appointed by congressional leaders, who would explore the circumstances surrounding Sept. 11 and make recommendations to prevent future attacks. Under a proposal by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the panel would include relatives of the victims of the attacks.
Roemer said the commission would "look back at what happened prior to 9-11 and fix the problems not through a political witch hunt, not through blame, but looking back to fix mistakes so we can move forward and prevent future terrorist attacks."
It's uncertain how much support Roemer's proposal will have in the Senate, which is expected to take up its own version of the intelligence bill next week.
The White House and many Republicans have opposed an independent commission, fearing it could lead to leaks of sensitive information. They prefer to leave the investigation of the attacks in the hands of the joint inquiry being carried out by the House and Senate intelligence committees
"We don't want to have interference with the 9-11 work that is now ongoing," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., the Intelligence Committee chairman.
The Bush administration issued a statement Thursday saying Roemer's proposal "is duplicative and would cause a further diversion of essential personnel from their duties fighting the war."
The closed-door, joint inquiry has identified a number of problems that have hurt efforts to fight terrorism. The House Intelligence Committee recommended the large spending increase to try to correct these deficiencies and the House approved it by voice vote.
Goss described the increase as "the most significant investment by the administration in the intelligence community in more than eight years." Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi of California, the ranking Democrat on the panel, called it the largest one-year increase, on a percentage basis, in two decades.
"Although no amount of money can guarantee that there will not be additional instances of terrorism, the funding recommended by this bill should make it harder to undertake successfully future terrorist attacks like those conducted on Sept. 11," said Pelosi.
Goss said the bill will give Bush "the intelligence tools to win the war on terrorism and to remedy many other long-standing problems of the intelligence community."
Those problems include failing to share information with each other, not attracting and retaining skilled linguists and analysts, not giving enough of a priority to traditional, human spying and trying to develop their own sophisticated technologies instead of taking advantage of what's available through private companies.
Intelligence Committee members say resolving these problems will cost money and they are trying to use their control over the budget to make changes.
"We're talking about using leverage to force change in the right direction. A lot of that leverage is the color green," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., in an interview.
She said the classified portions of the bill address specific problems, such as the need for more traditional spying.
The committee is trying to address the shortage of linguists -- something that has delayed the translation and analysis of intercepted communications -- by including $10 million for higher education foreign language training in languages considered critical to national security.
"It doesn't do much good if we have the right people in the right places dealing with collecting or analyzing if they don't have the language ability to understand what's being collected," Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y., said on the House floor.