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Intelligence reform bill gains momentum
Updated: 2004-12-07 23:29

WASHINGTON - A long-delayed bill overhauling the nation's intelligence agencies is nearing passage now that President Bush and House Armed Services chairman Duncan Hunter have endorsed a compromise guaranteeing battlefield commanders access to top-secret information.

Bush has called on Congress for months to pass legislation implementing the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations to protect the nation from terrorists. House GOP leaders have been holding up the bill because of Hunter's concerns that it might interfere with the military's ability to get vital information.

But Hunter now supports it because House-Senate negotiators added language to ensure Defense officials would have priority in battlefield areas over the nation's spy satellites and other intelligence equipment.

The California congressman had worried that a new national intelligence director, a position the legislation would create to coordinate spy agencies, would have been able to insert himself into the chain of command from the president to the combatant commanders.

House Republicans were meeting Tuesday to put the final touches on the bill. Lawmakers from both parties expect the bill to pass and said its reforms were long overdue.

"We have not in 50 years changed the intelligence system. We've never walked away from the Cold War model," Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday on CBS' "The Early Show." "We now have a bill which will pass both houses, I hope, that will change the intelligence system and head it in the right direction."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chief Republican negotiator on the bill, told CBS that by creating the post of national intelligence director, the legislation would create "a single individual who will be responsible for coordinating our intelligence and who will be accountable. We've lacked that in the current system."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had refused to bring the bill up before Thanksgiving because of the opposition from Hunter and House Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. Sensenbrenner said he would still oppose the bill in Tuesday's GOP meeting because it does not deal with such issues as illegal immigration and asylum changes.

Bush, in a letter to Congress, said the bill should be passed anyway. "These omissions from the final bill should not prevent the Congress from passing this historic legislation now," Bush said.

Even if some Republicans oppose the bill, supporters in the House and Senate say they have enough votes to pass the legislation.

"We hope that this support will provide the final momentum necessary to take intelligence reform across the finish line," Collins and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the lead Senate negotiators, said Monday in a joint statement.

The legislation also would cement into law the existence of a national counterintelligence center to coordinate the nation's fight against terrorism.

Bush had used his executive power to order officials to set that center up, and it opened Monday in an undisclosed location in northern Virginia, a government official said.

Intelligence veteran John Brennan will lead the new counterterrorism center on an acting basis until the legislation goes into effect, at which time the director will have to be officially nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

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