July 24, 2004
WASHINGTON - Senate and House committees will hold an unusual round of August hearings on intelligence reform after leaders of the Sept. 11 commission warned that America remained vulnerable to another deadly terror strike.
"The American people expect us to act," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said Friday. "We don't have the luxury of waiting for months."
Collins and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said they would invite the commission's leaders, Republican Thomas Kean and Democratic vice chairman Lee Hamilton, to testify.
The hearings will focus on two of the commission's key recommendations: creating a national counterterrorism center and a new director of intelligence to be confirmed by the Senate and with Cabinet-level authority over budgets and intelligence policies.
Congress began its recess Friday and was to be out of session until after Labor Day.
"This is a crisis. People died, and more people will unless we get it together," Lieberman said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also urged the committee to introduce legislation by Oct. 1 addressing the intelligence proposals, and the committee said it would do so.
Late Friday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who has expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider a sweeping intelligence overhaul this year, said he and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, would also direct House committees to hold hearings next month and make recommendations for legislation in September.
Earlier in the day, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California urged Hastert in a letter to reconvene the House in August, and Hastert responded that he would seek hearings "over the next several months." He later announced the August hearings.
"The House plans to immediately assess everything we have done ... since 9/11 and everything more we need to do," Hastert.
Kean, a former New Jersey governor, and Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, told reporters Friday that swift action was critical. They said Congress should get to work after the summer recess while the next president - either President Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry - must push for the overhaul soon after taking office in January.
"We're in danger of just letting things slide," Kean said. "Time is not on our side."
In its blistering report Thursday, the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats cited multiple intelligence failures that contributed to the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history. The unanimously endorsed report could spell trouble for Bush, who has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign.
Bush directed his chief of staff, Andrew Card, to study the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
Card will undertake a Cabinet-level review of the proposals, which will be examined at all levels of government, Buchan said. She would offer no time table for when Card would report back to Bush on the study.
Bush arrived at his Crawford, Texas, ranch Friday for a weeklong vacation and will discuss the commission's recommendations with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice when she arrives later this weekend.
The commission's report, the culmination of a 20-month investigation, portrayed the Sept. 11 terrorists as creative and determined while the nation they were preparing to strike was unprepared and uncomprehending of the imminent danger. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when 19 hijackers flew airliners into New York's Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
Lieberman said Senate leaders would appoint a group of senators to address another commission recommendation - to reorganize the way Congress oversees the intelligence agencies. He and Collins agreed that could be the tougher task.
"If business is conducted as usual, there will be turf battles" over congressional oversight, Lieberman said.