WASHINGTON – Congress is eager to show voters it's acting on the Sept. 11 commission's (search) call for overhauling intelligence agencies, but turf fights, partisan rivalries and the task's sheer complexity are sure to slow lawmakers' work.
Reflecting the momentum for change sparked last week by the commission's widely acclaimed final report, at least nine committees are planning more than 15 hearings in what is normally a sleepy August on Capitol Hill. The first is Friday, when the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hears from commission chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican, and his Democratic deputy, Lee Hamilton (search).
"My greatest fear is they'll rush something forward that's flawed, but each party says, 'I don't want to be the one who shoots this down,"' said James Carafano, who studies intelligence issues at the conservative-oriented Heritage Foundation.
Indeed, with White House and congressional control at stake in November -- and 9/11 panel members and relatives of attack victims promising to publicly lobby for change -- it would be tough for President Bush and lawmakers to do nothing.
Underscoring the political pressures, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (search) has said that commission suggestions for a national intelligence director and an overarching counterterrorism center in the White House should be adopted immediately. Bush is expected to approve executive orders making some changes in days.
A White House task force is examining what changes are needed. White House spokesman Trent Duffy gave no indication when it would complete its work, but said Bush is pleased with the progress it's making.
"He wants them to fast-track their work and the pace is one that reflects his desire to have action quickly," Duffy told reporters aboard Air Force One, as Bush returned to Washington from Crawford, Texas.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called House Democrats to an Aug. 10 meeting with commission members.
House leaders say they want bills ready in September, Senate leaders by Oct. 1. But they could meet stiff resistance from the CIA, Pentagon and other agencies, and lawmakers of both parties who stand to lose power.
Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., retiring chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a candidate to head the CIA, said it's tough to move quickly on such an issue. He said he could implement an intelligence overhaul in two months, "but you'd have to make me king to do it," Goss said.
The commission recommended creating a Cabinet-level national intelligence director to coordinate the work of the 15 agencies involved and their estimated $40 billion budget. It also proposed a national counterterrorism center to foster joint planning by those agencies, and more powerful congressional oversight committees.
Whatever changes Bush makes by executive order, Congress is sure to jealously protect its control of agency budgets. And it will be reluctant to let too much power accrue to an intelligence director unless the post requires Senate confirmation.
Analysts expect major resistance from the Defense Department, whose spy agencies consume about four-fifths of government intelligence spending and which has fought such changes before.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been mum on the recommendations. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the agency will examine the proposals.
Other potential losers include the CIA and other intelligence agencies used to directly controlling their own fates. CIA spokeswoman Michele Neff said it was too soon to comment.
"Powerful people stand to lose power with all those changes," said Jennifer Kibbe, intelligence specialist for the liberal-oriented Brookings Institution in Washington. "Even if they support it in public, they'll be working quietly against them."
The commission proposed a joint House-Senate committee to oversee intelligence, or giving the current intelligence panels sole power to legislate changes in the agencies and provide their money. The current intelligence committees share authority with a half-dozen other panels in each chamber.
If enacted, the committees that are likeliest to lose clout are the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which oversee Pentagon intelligence services, and the House and Senate Appropriations committees, which control the money.
Taking power from his panel would be "a very major issue," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va. But terrorism is such a stark threat that "we better not worry about turf battles," he added.
Some lawmakers and analysts say the issue is too complex to move quickly. They worry about creating an intelligence director who could be influenced by a president's political concerns, sacrificing essential oversight and analysis in the interests of streamlining, and eroding privacy rights.
Partisan fights could also intrude. Two years ago, Democrats slowed the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security for fear it would erode federal workers' rights.
The measure was enacted, but Republicans used the issue in campaigns that fall, defeating Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. Democrats are wary that Republicans might this time insert labor language or extend controversial law enforcement powers from the USA Patriot Act.
"I don't think it will be political," said Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Then, he added: "It better not be."