WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a massive reorganization of the United States intelligence community to address the Sept. 11 commission's (search) complaints that the nation's spy agencies don't work together properly to deter terrorist attacks.
The bill, approved on a 96-2 vote, would create a national counterterrorism center and also a position of national intelligence director (search) who would coordinate most of the nation's nonmilitary intelligence agencies.
"Those two provisions are the key recommendations of the 9/11 commission," said GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who shepherded the bill with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (search), D-Conn. "We want to make sure that the new national intelligence director is able to marshal the funds, the people and the resources to counter the threat of terrorism and other emerging threats."
The House plans to take up similar legislation later this week, but that legislation includes additional anti-terrorism and illegal immigration powers, that could preclude getting the recommended changes to President Bush before the election.
The 9/11 commission contended that the 15 military and civilian intelligence agencies' failure to cooperate precluded an effective defense that might have prevented the 2001 terror attacks on New York City and Washington. The panel recommended creating a position of national intelligence director to control and coordinate all the agencies.
The commission, along with the White House, endorsed the Senate bill. It faced little opposition from either side in the Senate although many supporters of the Pentagon and the intelligence community wanted it changed to preserve power for their committees or those agencies.
Bush applauded the vote. In a statement, he also called on the House to follow suit quickly with its own legislation, without endorsing one version over the other.
"This legislation is another important step forward as we do everything in our power to defeat the terrorist enemy and protect the American people," Bush said of the Senate bill.
"I've been in this body for only 18 years, but this is one of my prouder moments because of the way this entire body has acted in the national interest," added Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who originally wanted the Senate to pass a bill that would have enacted the commission's recommendations verbatim.
But several of the Senate's senior members — many of whom would lose some power over the intelligence community — argued against the bill, and warned that the legislative process was moving too fast.
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Democrats' senior senator, reminded his colleagues that they moved too quickly on the Iraq war resolution and the creation of the Homeland Security Department.
"Like a whipped dog fearing its master, the Senate obediently complied with the demands of the White House," Byrd said. "Hindsight reveals the mistakes the Senate made two years earlier."
The Homeland Security Department is stymied by "bureaucratic infighting, unresolved turf wars, and insufficient funding," Byrd said, while the White House's arguments of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have "has disintegrated into a mess of lies and hot air."
Byrd and Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., were the only two no votes. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts and running mate John Edwards of North Carolina did not vote.
The Senate bill must be reconciled with House legislation before it can go the White House for Bush's signature, and the two bills currently are very different.
The House also plans this week to approve legislation to create an intelligence director position and a national counterterrorism center. But the GOP also adds provisions on anti-terrorism, identity theft, illegal immigration and border security — measures that Democrats and some Republicans think shouldn't be included.
Senate leaders still think something can be accomplished by Election Day. House leaders also said Wednesday that they hoped to get the bill to the White House by the Nov. 2 election.
"Some of our colleagues who started out most skeptical or opposed to what we were doing ended up supporting the proposal because they believed it was right," Lieberman said. "I look forward to the House Senate conference with the same kind of optimism. The fact is that there's an urgency to do something."
House GOP leaders already are preparing to fight for their provisions.
"It's real simple. The House bill — every single word of it — will make the American people safer," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
But opponents of the GOP bill say the provisions were included to force Democrats into a difficult, election-year vote that could have political consequences.
"The 9/11 Commission urged Congress to work in a bipartisan manner to implement all of its recommendations," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said. "In contrast, House Republicans have turned this into a political exercise."