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Congress approves sweeping intelligence reform

The Senate overwhelmingly approved sweeping intelligence reforms on Wednesday to address post-Sept. 11 concerns about gaps in the Cold-War era system.
Sen. Susan Collins addresses the Senate Wednesday morning during discussion of legislation to overhaul the U.S. intelligence network.
Sen. Susan Collins addresses the Senate Wednesday morning during discussion of legislation to overhaul the U.S. intelligence network.NBC News
/ Source: The Associated Press

Congress on Wednesday ordered the biggest overhaul of U.S. intelligence in a half-century, replacing a network geared to the Cold War fight against communism with a post-Sept. 11 structure requiring military and civilian spy agencies to work together against terrorists.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the legislation 89-2, one day after the House easily pushed through the compromise strongly endorsed by President Bush.

Bush praised what he called “historic legislation that will better protect the American people and help defend against ongoing terrorist threats.”

“We remain a nation at war, and intelligence is our first line of defense against the terrorists who seek to do us harm,” Bush said in a statement released after the Senate’s vote. He gave no indication when he would sign the bill.

Lawmakers said the legislation was essential.

Changed world
“The world has changed,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. “Our terrorist enemies today make no distinction between soldiers and civilians, between foreign and domestic locations when they attack us.”

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks three years ago on New York City and Washington, which killed nearly 3,000 people, proved that the intelligence operation established in World War II and modified afterward to fight communism wasn’t effective enough against the threats of the new century, senators said Wednesday.

“We are rebuilding a structure that was designed for a different enemy at a different time, a structure that was designed for the Cold War and has not proved agile enough to deal with the threats of the 21st century,” said Senate Governmental Affairs chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., voted against the bill, with Byrd saying that it was folly to expect a law to make America safer from foreign terrorists.

“No legislation alone can forestall a terrorist attack on our nation,” Byrd said.

Outside the Senate doors were several of the family members who had lobbied Congress carrying pictures of their loved ones who died in Pennsylvania, the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

“I don’t think we’ve really digested it yet,” said Mary Fetchet, a social worker from New Canaan, Conn. whose 24-year-old son Brad died at the World Trade Center. “It’s been very emotional.”

Spy chief in new era
The Sept. 11 commission, in its July report, said disharmony among intelligence agencies contributed to the inability of government officials to stop the attacks. The government failed to recognize the danger posed by al-Qaida and was ill-prepared to respond to the terrorist threat, the report concluded.

In response, the legislation establishes a new director of national intelligence to oversee the nation’s 15 military and civilian spy agencies and make sure they work together to forestall future attacks. The bipartisan commission said that didn’t happen before terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“With landmark legislation on its way to the president, we have come very far on the road to reform,” said Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, former chair and vice chair of the 9/11 commission.

The intelligence director will not be part of the president’s Cabinet but is to have the same access as the defense secretary and the secretary of state. He will have authority to move intelligence assets around the globe to keep an eye on terrorist groups like al-Qaida — as well as nations like North Korea and Libya.

Bush has not yet decided whom to nominate to be the first intelligence director, spokesman Scott McClellan said. “We will move as quickly as we can, obviously, to implement the provisions and move forward on the steps it calls for in this legislation,” he said.

Six years after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — after World War II was won — Congress created the CIA, one of the spy agencies the national intelligence director will now direct in the fight against terrorism.

“Just as the National Security Act of 1947 was passed to prevent another Pearl Harbor, the Intelligence Reform Act will help us prevent another 9/11,” Collins said.

Thrashing out the details
The legislation includes a host of other anti-terrorism provisions, such as allowing officials to wiretap “lone wolf” terrorist suspects and improving airline baggage screening procedures.  It increases the number of full-time border patrol agents by 2,000 per year for five years and imposes new federal standards on information that driver’s licenses must contain.

Conflicts with House Republicans over how the new national intelligence director would work with the nation’s military held the bill up for two weeks, and the legislation was almost scrapped by lawmakers.

But heavy lobbying by the bipartisan commission and by families of the attacks’ victims kept the legislation alive through the summer political conventions, the election and a post-election lame duck session of Congress. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pushed hard in the final days.