Conventional wisdom suggests that if a legislative body is seeking to reform intelligence agencies, they must have some brainpower of their own.
On Saturday, amidst dissention, infighting and general bickering, Congress demonstrated a severe lack of unification and common sense when they failed to pass a crucial bill to overhaul the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Stemming from suggestions by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission reports, the piece of legislation would have created a new head of intelligence position and implemented a federal counterterrorism center. The new position and agency would have worked in tandem to oversee the operations of nonmilitary intelligence agencies, helping the government better coordinate its fight against terrorism.
More than just a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission, the bill was also approved by Congressional negotiators and vehemently supported by both Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush. Bush, who was in South America visiting diplomats, went as far as to call key republican legislators imploring them to facilitate the bill’s passing.
Surprisingly, a number of House republicans did not heed Bush’s notices, and were vocal in their opposition. Many cited weak provisions in the bill that did not adequately address border and immigration control.
Others like Reps. Duncan Hunter and Jim Sensenbrenner, who are both chairmen of the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, raised anxieties over the bill’s possible ramifications in military command. They fear that military control over giving orders will be taken out of the hands of servicemen and placed with other agencies, which could possibly endanger troops during wartime.
Opponents of the bill raise viable questions. Immigration policies are extremely lax and border patrol needs to be toughened. Though many immigrants do not invariably threaten the safety of American citizens, having illegal aliens pouring over the borders is counterproductive to tightened security measures elsewhere.
But for members of Congress to entirely propose the bill in the name of border control is equally counterproductive. The security of Americans is undoubtedly more threatened by weak intelligence agencies that are uncoordinated and ineffective than a Mexican searching for menial labor.
Furthermore, the military chain of command will not be mired more than it already is by the proposals.
One needs to point no further than the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to know the chain of command within the military is subject to breakdown. Troops are more threatened by the subsequent backlash spurred by such deplorable acts than they will be by legislation attempting to remedy such shortcomings.
There is no excuse for the deliberate inaction of Congress, especially for conservatives who oppose the bill. With a majority in the House and Senate, the White House fully behind the legislation and the 9/11 Commission saying the reform is necessary to better ensure the safety of the country, the necessity of the legislation and the ability to pass it is self-evident.
Still, some members of Congress haven’t budged. As Tim Roemer, 9/11 Commission Member quizzically asked, “”How many more body bags and deaths is it going to take for the political leadership to get a bill passed?”
Legislators are threatening to derail months of negotiation and compromise, as well as the work of a bipartisan committee established with the sole purpose of increasing security and increasing intelligence. If the proposal is not passed this year it would expire when the new Congress is sworn in during January. If that happens, new officeholders will have to redraft the bill entirely, if they even consider the proposal again.
Congress and President Bush must renew their efforts to pass the legislation, and they will likely have one last chance early next month. The choice should be a no-brainer, which is good news for the bills proponents considering the lack of brain activity during Saturday’s session.