US Senate approves spy agency overhaul bill
The US Senate on Wednesday approved an overhaul of US spy agencies that would establish a new powerful national intelligence director post in response to the Sept. 11 commission report that cited major failures leading to the attacks.
In a vote of 96-2, the Senate approved the bill after more than a week of debate, during which its sponsors beat back efforts to shift some of the proposed new director's budget and personnel authority back to the Pentagon. The US House of Representatives is expected to take up its version of the legislation this week.
The Senate bill was backed by members of the commission, which examined US intelligence before the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 and found that agencies failed to share information that might have prevented them.
"America is a nation at war, and this legislation is another important step forward as we do everything in our power to defeat the terrorist enemy and protect the American people," US President George W. Bush said in a statement commending the Senate for its bipartisan support of the bill.
With national security a major issue in the Nov. 2 presidential and congressional elections, House and Senate leaders have been pushing to pass their respective bills before lawmakers break on Friday for the final weeks of campaigning.
The Senate bill creates a new position of national intelligence director with a strong budget and personnel authority as recommended by the commission. It also creates a new counterterrorism center that would coordinate intelligence capabilities in that area and plan operations.
It also would create national intelligence centers that would address specific issues such as weapons of mass destruction and the Middle East.
But some say lawmakers should take more time to work through the ramifications of the most sweeping change in US intelligence in more than 50 years.
"We are too focused on the failings of 9/11," said Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat. "The Senate has not focused enough attention on the intelligence failures leading to the war in Iraq. We have not focused enough attention on the nuclear threat posed by Iran and North Korea. We have not focused enough attention on China."
But the bill's chief sponsor, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, disagreed that lawmakers were moving too fast and said Senate passage of the reforms would ensure the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks did not die in vain.
"The timetable was tight," she argued. "But the stakes were so high and the times so dangerous that we simply could not delay this urgent task."
Competing legislation in the House would also create a new national intelligence director post but keep much of the budget in the hands of the Pentagon, which currently controls about 80 percent of the $40 billion intelligence budget.
The House bill also has been criticized by civil liberties groups who say it would deny due process to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers and allow deportation of immigrants who could face torture. Provisions calling for federal standards for drivers' licenses and other identification have also been criticized.
The Senate and House would have to work out differences before sending the
bill to the White House.