Saturday, July 24, 2004

9-11 panel demands quick action

Senate plans August hearings

By Hope Yen
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission reiterated their call Friday that Congress and the president must quickly overhaul the nation's intelligence agencies, prompting a Senate pledge for an unusual round of hearings in August. The White House said it would study the proposals, but gave no timetable for action.

"We're in danger of just letting things slide," said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who served as the commission's chairman. "Time is not on our side."

Unless the panel's recommendations are implemented, "we're more vulnerable to another terrorist attack," he said.

Senate leaders said they would urge a key committee to introduce legislation by Oct. 1 to centralize the intelligence agencies. The committee said it would hold hearings on the commission's recommendations in early August, during its summer recess.

Collins and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said they would invite the commission's leaders, Kean and the vice chairman, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., to testify. The legislation would address two of the commission's key recommendations: creating a national counterterrorism center, headed by a Cabinet-level director.

"This is a crisis. People died, and more people will unless we get it together," Lieberman said.

In its blistering report Thursday, the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats cited multiple intelligence failures that contributed to the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history.

President Bush on Friday directed his chief of staff, Andrew Card, to study the commission recommendations, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

Card will undertake a Cabinet-level review of the proposals, which will be examined at all levels of government, Buchan said. She would offer no time table for when Card would report back to Bush on the study.

Bush arrived at his Crawford, Texas, ranch Friday for a weeklong vacation and will discuss the commission's recommendations with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice when she arrives later this weekend.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who has expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider a sweeping intelligence overhaul this year, said he would ask committees to hold hearings on the recommendation over the next several months, "so we can act on them as quickly as possible."

Congress began its recess Friday and was to be out of session until after Labor Day.

The idea of a new national intelligence director with budget authority and power to oversee the 15-agency intelligence community has been met with skepticism in Congress, where some key lawmakers are concerned that the position would create more bureaucracy and politicize the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi urged Hastert in a letter to reconvene the House in August.

"The sense of urgency conveyed by the commission's report, and the responsibility we have to the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families, compels us to act now," she said.

The commission's unanimous report, the culmination of a 20-month investigation, portrayed the Sept. 11 terrorists as creative and determined while the nation they were preparing to strike was unprepared and uncomprehending of the imminent danger. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when 19 hijackers flew airliners into New York's Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.

The report could spell trouble for Bush, who has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign. Some commissioners have said their reforms should become an election-year issue.

Rice said Friday in television interviews that change was needed, but she stopped far short of endorsing the creation of a national intelligence directorship.

"Any specific recommendation has to be looked at for both its up sides and its down sides," Rice said on NBC's "Today" show.

Lieberman said Senate leaders would appoint a group of senators to address another commission recommendation - to reorganize the way Congress oversees the intelligence agencies. He and Collins agreed that could be the tougher task.

"If business is conducted as usual, there will be turf battles" over congressional oversight, Lieberman said.


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