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House GOP leaders derail US intelligence overhaul

WASHINGTON -- A last-minute deal for a sweeping overhaul of the nation's intelligence services fell apart yesterday, as several powerful House Republicans balked at a bill intended to transform a fractured spy system designed to fight the Cold War into a unified team better equipped to combat global Islamist terror networks.

But congressional leaders pledged to keep the 108th Congress, which was set to end yesterday, in session a few days longer to break the deadlock over the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The bill would put most of the nation's 15 spy agencies under the control of a powerful director of national intelligence, as recommended in the 9/11 Commission's report on the failure to prevent the Al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, said yesterday afternoon that a compromise bill hammered out between House and Senate negotiators, which had seemed likely to pass earlier in the day, had been rejected by key House members.

He cited concerns by the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, and other allies of the Pentagon who have balked at proposals to hand control of several military spy agencies to the new director of national intelligence.

The compromise bill they rejected would have allowed the defense secretary to continue to control the budgets of agencies that collect and analyze satellite images and intercepted electronic communications, but still would have given the intelligence czar some control over their activities.

Hastert, who had supported the deal, said Hunter remained concerned that placing those agencies under the chain of command of the intelligence chief could disrupt the flow of real-time intelligence required by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

''It's hard to reform. It's hard to make changes," Hastert said. ''We're going to keep working on this bill. We will not adjourn. . . . We will ask the negotiators to keep working. We will ask the president to get involved personally in this issue, and we will get a bill that will reform our intelligence agencies as it protects our war fighters and people on the ground."

Thomas H. Kean, the 9/11 Commission chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, denounced the ''special interests" protecting the Pentagon for keeping the bill from coming to a vote. He said there were enough votes in the House to pass the legislation, and said the changes were supported by President Bush, leaders in both chambers and both parties, and the 9/11 families.

''Congress must come back from vacation and pass this bill," Kean told the Globe in an interview. ''This cannot be allowed to stand. . . . It looks today like the Pentagon are the most powerful people in Washington. They and their allies have stopped something that 80 percent of the American people favor and which is designed to make the American people safer. If we continue over the next six months without the protections embodied in that bill -- and that's what will happen if they don't come back -- God forbid we get another attack. This will be an awful price to pay."

President Bush had tried to persuade reluctant members to support the legislation, reportedly calling several yesterday from Chile, which he is visiting.

If Congress adjourns before the bill passes, the legislative effort will have to start anew when the 109th Congress takes office in January.

In the Senate, frustration at the collapse of the deal was palpable. An aide to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut and a lead negotiator on the compromise, said she did not understand the result because ''we gave them everything they wanted."

Civil liberties groups feared the delay in passing the bill could revive controversial immigration provisions that had been added by the House and which the groups dubbed ''Patriot II," in reference to the USA Patriot Act, the security legislation Congress passed shortly after the 2001 attacks.

Under the compromise, the House cut several immigration provisions denounced by human rights groups, such as one that would have removed some asylum-seeker cases from judicial review and another that would have legalized deporting suspected terrorists to countries where they were likely to be tortured.

Having declared the stripping of those provisions a ''huge victory" earlier in the day, human rights activists were newly worried at reports that the House Judiciary Committee chairman, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, wanted to bring them back into the bill.

But it was the fate of the core component of the bill -- the overhaul to the nation's espionage services -- that had officials in Washington riveted yesterday. In the current system, the director of central intelligence is supposed to oversee all the spy agencies, but that person also serves as the director of the CIA and lacks control over the budgets and personnel in the other 14 agencies.

Kean dismissed the argument that taking the spy satellite and signal intercept services away from total Pentagon control would endanger troops. He said that would require Bush to appoint a national intelligence director ''who will consciously do something to endanger American troops, and that's just ridiculous on the face of it."

''It shows, if nothing else, a total lack of faith in the president and his appointee," Kean said. ''Some people simply want to protect the status quo, and today they won. In this new century, facing this new enemy, we can't do that anymore and keep the American people safe. The status quo cannot continue to exist."

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