Conference committee faces difficult reconciliation process on intell bills
Provisions in a House intelligence reform bill could jeopardize reconciliation with a Senate version of the bill that emphasizes information sharing, several intelligence experts said last week. But lawmakers expressed confidence a bill might be enacted before the Nov. 2 election.
Passed more than a week ago, both versions establish a national intelligence director position and a National Counterterrorism Center. The provisions are hallmarks of the 9-11 Commission's 41 recommendations to improve the intelligence community and information sharing among federal, state, local and tribal authorities.
A conference committee has formed to reconcile the bills. "We knew the bills would not be identical, but we have faith we can resolve our differences in conference," Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), co-authors of the Senate bill, wrote in a recent statement.
Some intelligence experts said their concerns about reconciling the bills center on the House bill's immigration provisions. Lee Strickland, a former CIA senior intelligence officer who teaches at the University of Maryland, said officials at privacy and civil libertarian groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are alarmed about certain anti-immigrant provisions in the House bill.
The Senate version is more faithful to the commission's intelligence reform recommendations, said Jim Lewis, senior fellow and director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"You can find yourself being for intelligence reform but against the House bill because of these civil liberties" issues, he said.
Delays in enacting the legislation could postpone reforms that cybersecurity proponents have introduced into the bills. A significant House provision, for example, creates an assistant secretary for cybersecurity within the Homeland Security Department's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate.
The House version also contains many technology-related homeland security measures, such as airport screening, formulas for first-responder grants, standards for identification documents and birth certificates, and interoperable communications.
The bills differ in terms of the legislation's main focus, which is intelligence reform. The Senate version gives more budgetary authority to the national intelligence director than the House bill. "If there's a real philosophical difference there, then it's going to be hard to resolve," Lewis said.
Both bills also call for greater information sharing among all levels of government. The Senate version would create a decentralized, trusted information-sharing network to connect existing information systems. The concept of the network was developed and publicized in a report that the nonprofit Markle Foundation published last year.
The Senate bill proposes giving the Office of Management and Budget the authority to design, build and manage the intelligence network. An Executive Council on Information Sharing, composed of representatives from various intelligence agencies, would assist OMB officials.
Strickland said he favors the Markle proposal in the Senate bill because it calls for sharing information with state and local authorities, who control about 95 percent of the nation's homeland security resources.
"It changes the basis for information security and sharing from the old 'need to know' to a 'need to share,'" Strickland said. "I think they got it exactly right."
Giving OMB officials authority over the network is reasonable, because they already are responsible for e-government initiatives and governmentwide planning for information technology spending, he said.
"OMB is the agency people love to hate, but in my judgment, it's a reasonable place to put it," Stickland said. "They could conceivably acquit themselves well in discharging this responsibility."
But both experts said it is unlikely that President Bush will sign any intelligence reform legislation by Election Day.
A potpourri of provisions
Differences in House and Senate versions of intelligence reform legislation must now be hashed out in conference committee.
Here, at a glance, are a few of the differences.
The Senate bill would:
Create a chief information officer position at the proposed National Intelligence Authority.
Establish information technology and communications standards for the intelligence community.
The House bill would:
Formalize the legal framework for the National Virtual Translation Center, which uses state-of-the-art communications technology.
Improve the technical functionality of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
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