The intelligence-reform bill is now law, but the jury is still out on whether this will be an effective piece of legislation. Naturally everyone hopes that the new law will do what its backers say — make America safer and forestall a repeat of 9/11 — but there is much about the bill and how it came to be passed to give one pause.
The report of the 9/11 Commission — whose formation President Bush at first opposed — came out in mid-summer. Congress might have preferred to wait until next year, but commission recommendations were caught up in the election campaign and fueled by emotional and very effective lobbying by the families of 9/11 victims.
If Bush didn't actually oppose intelligence reform, he was certainly lukewarm about it — as were many Republican conservatives — and didn't enter the political fight until the very end. Still, he gets credited with the political victory.
But what did the country get?
We get a director of national intelligence with — on paper — substantial authority over the budgets and personnel of 15 intelligence agencies, including the CIA and those at the Pentagon and FBI. Some lawmakers don't think the DNI has enough authority; in any case, how this works in practice will be the subject of massive bureaucratic intrigue.
Some critics feel the DNI merely duplicates many of the duties of the White House national security adviser and adds another layer of bureaucracy in the sense that some officials, like the head of the CIA who reported to the president directly, will now report to the DNI instead.
The 600-page bill never got the careful committee and subcommittee hearings it deserved, and that shows in the enactment of some programs already in existence and the duplication of others, like another counterterrorism center.
The reform bill gets the federal government into the business of driver's licenses by requiring it to set standards for the states. You don't have to be a black-helicopter paranoid to see that this is the first concrete step to a national ID card and whatever that portends for our fast-diminishing privacy.
In the end, the bill was passed in a rush — by the House on Tuesday, the Senate on Wednesday — by a lame-duck Congress racing to adjourn, not the best way in the world to handle a complicated measure.
Meanwhile, Bush's own 9/11 panel is due to report next March. That's the Robb-Silberman commission — named after the former senator and the federal judge who are the co-chairs — that has been meeting in private since last February.
Bush may want his own reform bill based on his own commission's recommendations. Intelligence reform is still a work in progress.