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Panel will sharply fault role of congress { July 22 2004 }

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July 22, 2004
9/11 Panel Is Said to Sharply Fault Role of Congress

WASHINGTON, July 21 - The Sept. 11 commission will sharply criticize Congress for failures in its role as overall watchdog of the nation's intelligence apparatus, lawmakers and others briefed on the panel's findings said Wednesday. And to help prevent new terrorist attacks, the panel will call for wholesale changes in the way lawmakers oversee intelligence and domestic security agencies, the lawmakers and others said.

The panel's report to be made public on Thursday will propose that both the House and Senate establish permanent committees on domestic security with jurisdiction over a wide range of activities that is now spread among dozens of competing committees, officials said.

The report will also recommend that the existing intelligence committees have much broader discretion over intelligence policy and spending while raising the alternative of a joint House-Senate intelligence panel.

Although much of the focus on the commission's work has to this point been on failings within the intelligence agencies and executive branch, the significant changes proposed for Capitol Hill illustrate that the panel determined that Congress also fell short in executing its own responsibilities.

Other new details emerged about the final report, including a recommendation that the government create a National Counterterrorism Center to absorb a variety of existing operations, including a year-old Terrorism Threat Integration Center now at the Central Intelligence Agency. Officials also said the proposed new national intelligence director would be subject to Senate confirmation.

The proposals involving Congress are certain to touch off fierce turf wars in the House and Senate, where lawmakers historically protect the power they wield through their responsibility for setting policy and budgets for federal agencies. Such jurisdictional fights have for years blocked similar proposed changes in the intelligence field, but some lawmakers said Wednesday that they should not stand in the way of the changes recommended by the panel.

"If we're going to, based on the findings of this report, respond and improve, we are going to have the challenge of overcoming the institutional inertia which is a product of a lot of what we have in Washington, D.C.," the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said after being briefed by the panel's leaders. "That's going to be the challenge for us as leaders."

As they braced for the release of the report, Republican Congressional leaders prepared to emphasize the changes they have enacted since 9/11. But the conclusions and recommendations show that the bipartisan independent commission believes that significant work remains.

The recommendations could force House and Senate leaders either to follow through on the ideas or risk being accused of ignoring the findings in the event of another attack.

"Before, this was unpredictable," the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, said as she urged strong consideration for the proposals. "Now it is predictable, and we all have a heightened responsibility to avoid another tragedy."

The House has a temporary special committee on domestic security while the Senate has none, dispersing those responsibilities through its committees like Defense, Appropriations and Commerce. The shortcomings of even the House approach were exhibited this month when an effort to write comprehensive domestic security legislation for next year broke down in jurisdictional disputes with other committees.

"It goes without saying that chairman of committees are generally very vigorous in guarding their committee's jurisdiction," Representative Jim Turner of Texas, senior Democrat on the House domestic security panel, said. "But to get this job done, we can't move at a snail's pace."

Congressional aides with long experience in the intelligence field said the proposals for the intelligence panels would represent major changes and would encounter significant resistance.

Currently, the intelligence panels have authority for setting policy for the intelligence agencies. They share that power with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, because the military controls such a large segment of the intelligence apparatus. The actual spending for the agencies is established through the appropriations committees, mainly by a subcommittee responsible for military spending.

Under the panel's recommendation, as described by the lawmakers and aides, the intelligence committees would gain much greater control over policy and spending, a significant shift in the Congressional approach. Aides said the report would also urge consideration of a joint House-Senate panel responsible for intelligence agencies. That, too, would be rare, because House and Senate committees usually draw up individual items of legislation and then work out the differences in conference committees.

"That would be a major change for Congress," a Democratic official familiar with the report said about the intelligence committee alternative. That official and others said the report represented a clear criticism of Congress's oversight role.

But Dr. Frist, the Senate majority leader, said he did not see it that way.

"Congress is doing a very good job, but there are going to be very clear areas of improvement," he said.

Aides said the majority leader was considering creating a bipartisan group to review how or whether to enact the recommendations or how to do so.

"I'll be talking to the Democratic leadership, you know, within 24 hours about setting up a plan," he said. "It can't be the knee-jerk reaction. But we know that we are a nation at risk. The war on terror is real."

In other areas of the commission's investigation, some findings have been disclosed over the months in its staff's voluminous interim. They are now amplified by the unanimous endorsement of the commissioners in this final release or by the release of new information and evidence.

On Tuesday, television networks featured newly released eerie videos of some of the hijackers passing through security checkpoints on Sept. 11 at Dulles International Airport outside Washington just before seizing the American Airlines plane that they crashed into the Pentagon. The commission staff had described the video in detail in a report issued in January, telling how two of the hijackers set off magnetometer alarms and were checked again before being waved through. Minutes later, two other hijackers boarded through the same checkpoints, one of them again setting off an alarm but being double-checked and allowed to board.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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