WASHINGTON — The White House urged congressional negotiators Tuesday to agree quickly on overhauling U.S. spy agencies so that President Bush can sign the bill into law "as soon as possible."
With terrorism and homeland safety dominant issues in a tight presidential race, the 10-page White House letter came as a clear signal to the Republican-controlled House and Senate to resolve differences and create a newly empowered national intelligence director and a National Counterterrorism Center. But the White House also said it opposes several provisions, and Sept. 11 family members worry those concerns could hinder passage.
A House-Senate panel will meet today to negotiate over differences, particularly border control and law enforcement provisions in the House bill.
In the letter to key negotiators, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and budget director Joshua Bolten urged them "to reach agreement on an effective bill to strengthen the nation's intelligence capabilities that both houses can pass and the president can sign into law as soon as possible."
Pressure to reform the nation's intelligence grew from "The 9/11 Commission Report," which detailed failures and lapses before the deadly terror attacks. The commission found weak leadership and much bureaucratic confusion among the many government agencies involved in intelligence and law enforcement.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, has urged passage of the 9/11 Commission recommendations intact, a position strongly backed by organizations representing relatives of attack victims.
Bush stopped short of fully endorsing the commission's ideas. The White House favors keeping some power over intelligence in the hands of the secretary of defense, particularly on intelligence agencies that serve troops in the field. And the administration opposes creating "a new bureaucracy" devoted to offering alternative views to the key intelligence assessments coming from the CIA and other agencies.
The White House prefers the stronger authorities for the national intelligence director in the Senate bill but favors the House provision that would keep overall intelligence spending secret.
The Senate agreed with the 9/11 Commission finding that secrecy in intelligence budgeting had deprived the public of an opportunity to participate in the debate on how high a priority intelligence would be in overall national security.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the White House letter creates more problems than it solves by not clearly supporting the Senate version of the bill.
Mary Fetchet, who lost her son Brad in the World Trade Center attacks, said in an interview, "We can no longer sit back and wait. The terrorists are not waiting." Fetchet, an activist and member of two 9/11 family groups, said Bush should demand that the bill "be on his desk before the election."
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that "everything's still on the table" but that members "are all hoping we can come together and put together a good bill" before Nov. 2.