Politics & Policy

Good Sense & Sensenbrenner

On intel-reform, quicker is not better.

H ouse Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner is one of the villains of the hour in Washington. He has had the temerity to insist that the intelligence-reform bill–inspired by the 9/11 Commission and largely focused on centralizing U.S. intelligence, for no very good reason–actually include some provisions drawn from the commission’s work that will enhance domestic security.

Sensenbrenner wants the federal government to set standards for driver’s licenses to make them more secure and less liable to exploitation by terrorists. This is one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It can be found on page 390 of its report, in bold. One proposal would have a driver’s license expire with the holder’s visa–several of the 9/11 hijackers were here on expired visas. Sensenbrenner also wants to tighten up the procedures around the U.S. asylum system and make it easier to detain and deport suspected terrorists. As the 9/11 Commission’s staff report on terrorist travel noted, “Immigration cases against suspected terrorists were often mired for years in bureaucratic struggles over alien rights and the adequacy of evidence.” A bill with all these provisions passed the House by a healthy 282-134 margin.

But the Senate has had different ideas. It doesn’t want to stray into the “controversial,” instead hoping to stick with the non-controversial and mostly meaningless, i.e. reshuffling the intelligence bureaucracy. Senate Democrats and Republicans, with the support of the former 9/11 commissioners and (for the most part) the White House, have excluded or watered down the Sensenbrenner proposals. He has offered possible compromises, only to be rebuffed by the Senate. So who is being the obstructionist?

“All that the public is

likely to understand about

the complex bill is that the military

doesn’t like it because it might

loosen its control over its own

operational intelligence.”

It hasn’t helped that Majority Leader Bill Frist has put together a limp group of Republican conferees on this bill. It is lead by Susan Collins, who we can expect to be on the wrong side of important intramural GOP battles. But Pat Roberts and John Sununu have been of little or no help to House Republicans.

Hysteria is the order of the day now that Sensenbrenner and House Republicans have rejected the Senate’s version. Former 9/11 Commission head Tom Kean says, ridiculously, that not passing the bill risks American lives, as if every day without a national intelligence director is a danger. Why the sudden urgency? The 9/11 Commission deliberated for more than 18 months, every day of which the nation was without a national intelligence director. Joe Lieberman–who is now among those banging the drums to pass the bill immediately–wanted back in February to extend the deadline for the commission’s work to January 10, 2005–almost a month and a half from now! By Lieberman’s sound logic back in February–e.g., we should take our time to do any big 9/11-related reform correctly–we should wait for the report of the Judge Laurence Silberman/Charles Robb commission on intelligence, due in March, before overhauling U.S. intelligence.

More immediately, the politics of this bill have changed from when it was introduced–and hastily endorsed by John Kerry–during the presidential campaign. Bush was railroaded into endorsing it too. Now, all that the public is likely to understand about the complex bill is that the military doesn’t like it because it might loosen its control over its own operational intelligence–a point Rep. Duncan Hunter has effectively carried into the political debate over it–and that it doesn’t tighten the immigration system in commonsensical ways. In other words, Sensenbrenner has every reason to stick by his guns. Mr. Chairman, keep at it.

* * *

DON’T DELAY

A serious push has begun within Iraq to postpone the elections currently scheduled for Jan. 30. This would be a mistake. Once an election is delayed once, it becomes ever easier to keep postponing it until the “security situation improves.” By the standard of the advocates of delay, civil-war-wracked El Salvador never would have begun its transition to democracy in the 1980s and Colombia wouldn’t be holding elections now. In any case, there is no guarantee that security will dramatically improve in the Sunni Triangle in the next six months or by any other arbitrary timeframe. A delay might even encourage Sunni thugs to escalate their killing campaign, and alienate the majority Shia from the U.S., which would be the death knell for our current project in Iraq. This is a case where the perfect shouldn’t be allowed to be the enemy of the good, or even–given the reality of conditions in Iraq–of the merely adequate. The political process has to maintain forward momentum, despite the difficulties, or it risks stalling completely.

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