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Congressional Conference Call Briefing - Status of Intelligence Reform Legislation

Location: Washington, DC

Federal News Service




REP. HOEKSTRA: This is Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and I welcome you to this conference call. I am joined by my conference colleagues, Senator Collins, Senator Lieberman and Representative Harman. We just completed a conference call with the conferees of the entire set of conferees, where I would guess that we had just about 90 percent participation from the conferees.

Now, here's what we shared with the conferees. That is, that over the last two weeks, especially the four of us, but other members on occasion have been involved in the discussions, we have gotten to know each other very, very well. The four of us have been in Washington-I think the last of us left yesterday afternoon, but up until Wednesday, all four of us were in Washington, almost since the conference began. And we have been meeting on pretty much a daily basis. A number of days we met more than once together.

Now, the issues between the House and the Senate versions, they've been complex, they've been difficult. The discussions have been focused on the direction that we would take with Title I. Title I are the authorities for the national intelligence director, the structure and the responsibilities of the National Counterterrorism Center, and also primarily the Civil Liberties Board. There have been in the House offer that was given last week, we started with Title I. After Title I was presented to the Senate, the other provisions were also provided to the Senate at a later point. The progress we've made has been slow. It is not definitive. We have not reached agreement. We've maybe come close on some issues, but on other issues there is still a-there are some cases what some would describe as a rather significant gap.

Both the White House, the folks from the 9/11 commission, and the speaker have been involved in one form or another of trying to help us bridge the differences. Over the weekend, the-well, maybe not the-put it this way-later this afternoon the House will present another offer back to the Senate. We are expecting hopefully early next week that the Senate will be able to respond to the offer. The offer will consist of all five titles. We hope that we can bridge some of the differences and get closer to where we'd like to be on Title I. We recognize that on Titles II through V there will probably need to be additional work, because we haven't had the same kind of in-depth, meaningful discussions on those titles that we've had on Title I. I do not expect that this would be the final piece of work that would go over to the Senate this afternoon. But what we hope is that it continues to be a step in the right direction.

I think all four of us are committed to doing as much work as we can, so that we can get this done during a lame-duck session. We're realistic about the work-significant work needs to be done. Compromise needs to be made. But with all of us working, we believe that it is possible-it will be difficult, but it is possible that a bill can be completed.

And with that, Susan, I'll turn it over to you, and then we'll go to Jane and then to Senator Lieberman. Susan? Hello, Susan? Senator Collins, are you there?

SEN. COLLINS: Hello, can you hear me now? I don't know why it wouldn't go through.

It is very disappointing that we have been unable to negotiate an agreement to date. But I am heartened by the determination of each of us to keep negotiating towards the goal of reaching an agreement.

I also was pleased that the conferees this morning in our broader conference call encouraged us to keep going as well. I'm determined to keep working toward an agreement, because this issue is so important to our national security. And I'm also encouraged that both sides have moved somewhat from their initial positions. We have made some progress, albeit not nearly as much as I would have hoped by this time.

I remain hopeful that we can negotiate an agreement that could be considered as the first item of business in the lame-duck session.


OPERATOR: Before Ms. Harman begins, we need to let you know that the call is about to be recorded.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Jane? Is Jane there?

SEN. COLLINS: She was. I wonder when you told everyone to press-to mute their phones whether that's the problem. And, Jane, if that's the case you need to do I think it's star-6 to unmute it.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Susan, you're getting awful technical here. I'm impressed.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Susan is being advised by the National Security Agency. (Laughter.)

SEN. COLLINS: Which is eavesdropping on this call.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Joe, why don't you go, and hopefully we'll be able to work out the technical difficulties with Jane.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Fine. First, thanks to you, Peter and Jane and Susan, for all of the work that we've done together. And you're right, we have spent a lot of time together, and I think there's sort of a real mood of trust that's grown among us.

For me, as I know for the three others, the inability to reach a conference committee agreement yet has been a deep personal disappointment. I must say, however, that if we do not reach an agreement before the end of the lame-duck session, it will be a shameful failure for Congress. And that's why I know that the four of us and our conferees are committed to trying to do that. And it will be a shameful failure, because this is not just any conference committee on any bill-conference committees regularly fail to reach agreement in Congress. But this one is about the threat of terrorism. And what the 9/11 commission has told us are the vulnerabilities that allowed the terrorists to strike on 9/11, and will allow them to strike again unless we better organize our intelligence assets and community-and that's what this is all about.

We are very accustomed to using a phrase in Congress-"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." In this case, the quest for the perfect may well be the enemy of the safety and security of the American people, and therefore we have to commit ourselves to a quest for the good, for the best we can do before the lame-duck session to improve our security. Obviously we had hoped that the Election Day would be a point of pressure that would have brought us together. I mean, sadly, that has-though it's brought us closer together, it hasn't brought us together.

Sadly, the election will come and go next Tuesday, insofar as this conference committee is concerned. But the threat of terrorism remains, and I do believe that ultimately, and appropriately, is a stronger incentive to get this done.

I was encouraged on the call this morning by some of the-I can't find a better word than "flexibility" that I thought I heard and a commitment to really stretch to find common ground to pass this bill. One of our colleagues said, "I'm not for the Senate bill, I'm not for the House bill-I'm for the right bill, the best bill we can get done before the lame-duck session"-and that's the spirit in which I proceed now to the next chapter of our work together.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Good, thank you, Joe.

Jane, are you back?

REP. HARMAN: Yes, I'm --

REP. HOEKSTRA: Okay, good.

REP. HARMAN: Can everybody here me? Oh, good. I don't know what happened before. Anyway, I was starting to say that if the Red Sox can win, anything is possible in this year. And they had to wait 86 years. We've only been waiting 55 years for intelligence reform. This is clearly a subject I'm passionately interested in, and I dearly hope we can work some form of good bill by the end of this year.

I wanted to make a couple of points. First of all, the House proposal, which I have not seen, which will be sent around later today, including I assume to the House Democratic conferees, is the House Republican proposal. I think that's unfortunate. I wish that the House were speaking with one voice on this issue, as the Senate is. And in that regard I want to commend Susan and Joe for demonstrating, even in this dismally partisan 108th Congress, that bipartisanship can produce excellent legislation.

I would hope that as we proceed to consider the House Republican offer we would re -- (audio glitch) -- the White House letter that we all received dated October 18th, 2004. And the other one is the 9/11 commission letter that we all received dated October 20th, 2004. Both of those letters are extremely careful and evaluated both the House- and Senate-passed bills and make specific suggestions for common ground. And I personally believe that if we had followed those suggestions 10 days ago we might have had an agreement before the election, which was something all four of us so really wanted to achieve. So my comment is that we do have some benchmarks to look at to move us together.

Finally, I did want to mention that on the House side some specific suggestions were made by one of our conferees, Bob Menendez, on behalf of the House Democrats, and they relate to Title III, the immigration sections. And they essentially proposed taking some of the ideas in the House-passed bill, including more border guards, more beds. The Western Hemisphere changes-but putting the rest of the much more divisive issues into a study-not projecting them, but studying them for a short period of time, so that the House and Senate can come back at a later time and consider them separately. I just wanted to be sure everyone understood there was some engagement on that issue. I don't know whether that suggestion will be favorably considered in the House Republican offer, but we did make that suggestion at the request of Chairman Hoekstra about a week ago.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Okay, thank you. Courtney, I believe you have a list of press folks as they came on the line for questions? Is that correct? Okay, who is this?

Q Hi, this is Simona Chedarchi (ph) with Knight Ridder Newspapers Washington Bureau.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Okay, go ahead.

Q How did the Pentagon letter, I mean the letter from General Myers this week, and negotiations involving Pentagon allies, how did that contribute to where you are now through the stalemate that you have right now?

REP. HOEKSTRA: Well, there's been a lot of input in the last week. Some of that has helped move the process forward. Some of it has delayed it or sidetracked it. You know, we've gotten, as Jane indicated, we've gotten comments from the White House, we've gotten comments from the 9/11 commission, we've gotten comments from Phil Zelikow, who is the former staff director. And you know we're-and then we've got the letter from General Myers. All of that stuff is being considered and will be factored into, in one form or another, the offer that we are going to be making later this afternoon.

Does anybody else want to --

Q I'd like to ask a follow-up question, if I could. It's Mary Curtis at the Los Angeles Times. Chairman Hoekstra, this offer that you're going to be making this afternoon, is it going to address-is it going to contain provisions around the way the flow of money would be handled? And does this offer go beyond the offer that I understand the speaker's chief of staff said on Wednesday the House would not go beyond?

REP. HOEKSTRA: We've been in a number of different places in the last four or five days. There will be-one of the issues that we've talked about considerably is the flow of money. The Senate, in response to the offer that we made last week, Friday, sent over, I think, a very helpful, a nine-point Senate-we refer to it in common language as the nine-point Senate memo. And we have tried to address some of the points that they've raised in their memo. They also sent over a statement that dealt with terms and definitions. We're also trying to respond and incorporate some of the changes that they recommended in that document. So there will be changes in there. There will also be changes in the area that Jane referenced, which is Title III, II and III. In some of the informal discussions we've had in the last week-I know that Chairman Sensenbrenner met with Senators Collins and Lieberman. He had indicated that he was willing to consider dropping the-or removing the death penalty from the law enforcement provisions. You know, there was obviously no agreement which was made, but Chairman Sensenbrenner and the offer that will be coming out of the House today will have removed the death penalty. We will also-we've removed the provision dealing with expedited removal, and we will also deal with the issue of caps on aliens granted asylum. So I think in a number of different places in the bill you will see some changes from where we were last week, Friday.

I was going to say-I don't know if there's any-Jane or Joe or Susan, if you want to add anything?

REP. HARMAN: Well, I'm listening carefully. As I said, I haven't read this proposal, and I look forward to reading it, and I don't want to prematurely make a judgment on it. But I think the question was the flow of money. This has to do with changes if you eliminate the declassified top-line, something that three fourths of the conferees support. It was in the Senate bill. The House Democrats voted for the Menendez substitute, to declassify the top line. But if you do not do that, which is the strong wish of the House Republicans, then you have to hide the money in the budget. And how do you do that, and how much control will the secretary of Defense have over the money? And we reached an impasse on that issue a few days ago, because those of us who felt that the NID needs strong budget execution authority felt that some part of this money could not have what we call the second valve of control by the secretary of Defense. So I don't-I didn't hear you, Peter, say that your offer was going to change in any way the language that was suggested a few days ago, which led to an impasse. Is it going to change that language?

REP. HOEKSTRA: I think the-there will be some changes to that, but I-it would not be as significant as what would lead to the opportunity to declassify the number. And obviously part of the flow of the money issue comes as to whether you're going to have a declassified or a classified number.

Q Can I ask-this is Shaun Waterman from UPI. Could I just have a quick follow-up on that? I gather that there is this problem of where you hide $40 billion.

REP. HOEKSTRA: (Laughter.) If that's what it is, you found it.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: They were considering, Shaun, your bank account. (Laughter.


Q I gather there was a proposal for some kind of escrow account managed by OMB. I mean, I guess the point I'm trying to get at is-you know, was rejection from Hunter and some of the other House conferees really about secrecy or was it really about control?

SEN. COLLINS: Pete, could I take a stab at that one?

REP. HOEKSTRA: That's fine.

SEN. COLLINS: This is a key issue in the bill. The reason that the Senate-one of the reasons that the 9/11 commission and the Senate recommended the declassification of the top line is then you don't have to hide the money in the Department of Defense accounts or in other accounts. You can give an account directly to the national intelligence director, and it's a much clearer, cleaner system. However, the two issues are potentially separable. The issue of-it makes it more difficult if the top line is still classified. But presumably those are two separate issues. But what my goal is, speaking for myself, is to make sure that the NID has true budget execution authority. And if someone else is able to control the flow of the money, then the NID does not have true budget execution authority.

But certainly there's a lot of ways to get towards that goal, and that's what we're continuing to discuss. It has been the thorniest issue to resolve so far.

Q On that point, has the House then moved-this is Greta Wodele with Congress Daily-has the House then moved off of its position to allow-to cut out the Pentagon from this process? In other words, are you guys going to allow the money to flow directly from the NID to these defense intelligence agencies?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Well, that's what we're negotiating. It's fair to say, as you and others have been following us, mostly know-and it seems from your questions that you've got pretty good sources from our confidential meetings -- (laughter) -- the initial hurdle we're facing is the one that intelligence reformers faced for the last half century, which is, Can you have genuine intelligence reform and now a strong national intelligence director, and allow the Department of Defense to maintain some form of budget authority over the intelligence budget? And during the week we thought we might have had a formula to take us a step toward one another, but it didn't sell. There have been times I think when each of us felt that it might be time to walk away. But this thing is too important, and we're going to hang in there and keep trying to find a formula that will I think for me I say and for the Senate, people in the Senate generally, that will lead us to conclude that we have not just created the Office of the National Intelligence Director, but that it's real and it has authority that somebody will be in charge of our intelligence community in a way that no one was before 9/11, as the commission documents. And there are various ways to get to that point, and rest assured we're going to explore every single one of them between now and the lame-duck session.

Q But does the latest House proposal do that?

SEN. COLLINS: Well, we haven't-the latest House proposal has not been submitted to the Senate yet.

REP. HARMAN: Or to the House Democrats.

Q This is Martin Cady (ph) at Congressional Quarterly. Senator Collins, when the Senate passed the bill earlier this month, you said that if we don't get it done this year, you bet we won't get it done at all, if this bill is pushed into next year. Do you still believe that?

SEN. COLLINS: I do. I am pessimistic that if we have to start all over again next year that we would be successful. We're fast learning there's a reason that intelligence reform has been blocked over the past 50 years time and time again. It is extremely difficult to accomplish. I think we have the momentum generated by the strong recommendations from the 9/11 commission. The time is ripe, and I believe that we need to act this year.

Q During the lame-duck-here's a different question-what happens if John Kerry wins, or if the Senate changes hands-are all of you worried that the legislative dynamic and the mood for compromise would change if there is some political change?

SEN. COLLINS: Well, I can't imagine either of those eventualities, so I guess I should let my Democratic colleagues respond. (Laughs.)

REP. HARMAN: I'll take that. I can imagine them. I can wish for them. But, nonetheless, I would say that John Kerry has stated that he is firmly committed to the 9/11 commission recommendations. So I would surely hope that if he wins on November 2nd, he would encourage us to adopt some of the suggestions in the 9/11 commission letter of October 20, which does move beyond the Senate bill as passed or the House bill as passed to some common ground. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, that letter has been around for a couple of weeks. And if that were the basis for our negotiations, we might truly get to an agreement in the lame-duck session, which I think would be in everyone's interests. It's a dangerous world. I totally agree with Joe Lieberman's comments that we cannot put off reforming our intelligence capabilities.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Yeah, I think what you're going to see is obviously the dynamics after Tuesday will depend on what occurs on Tuesday. But the four of us are committed to do everything that we can over the-from the timeframe from Tuesday to when the lame-duck ends-to try to make this bill a reality. We are committed. We have been in Washington for most of the last two weeks working on this, many nights till well past midnight. Our staffs have been there until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. You know, our focus right now is doing as much as we can to try and get this done before the lame-duck is over.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: I agree with that. And I thought I heard some sentiment in that direction from our other conferees. It was, I suppose understandably and appropriately vague in most cases, but I thought I heard this morning some feeling that to find common ground on the powers of the national intelligence director and the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center, on which-the second on which we're very close-those are the two top recommendations of the 9/11 commission-may well be a willingness among the conferees to put aside for the moment some of the other parts of both the House and the Senate bills that are important, but not as important to do immediately as the NID and the NCTC.

Q Why do you think this hasn't been more of an issue out in the campaign?

REP. HOEKSTRA: Well, from my perspective there's a lot of-I mean, being in a battleground state and having the president or the vice president or Senator Kerry or Senator Edwards basically in my backyard every day-one of them every day-there's a lot of issues out there. And I think this is one where there's maybe not a lot of distance between the president and Senator Kerry, that they-and between the four of us-we all want to create a national intelligence director, we want to create a strong national intelligence director. We have different definitions as to exactly what that means, but we want to do a Civil Liberties Board. The offer that comes over today will strengthen the Civil Liberties Board for - -you know, let's remember the House offer-the House bill didn't even have a Civil Liberties Board in it. We are going to come closer to the Senate on where they were with the National Counterterrorism Center and on the law enforcement and immigration issues. I mean,. Senator-or, excuse me, Representative Sensenbrenner has been willing to, even with no negotiations from the Senate on this, has been willing to make some concessions, which I think he believes are pretty significant, by pulling out the death penalty and the expedited removal. So I think that, you know echoing Senator Lieberman's comments, I think it really is the sense of our conferees is to try to move this process forward and to take some steps-take some initiative by the conferees on their own, without kind of a tit for tat, saying, Well, I'll give up death penalty if you give over here. And it's kind of like, well, let's take the first step and see where that leads.

Q Could I just follow up on that?

Q Excuse me, could I get a question in. This is Denise with Aviation Daily-I'm sorry, Shaun, can you-let me just get my question in, because you have a follow-up.

Q Sure, sure, go on.

Q Can I just shift gears for a second and look at Title II and IV. I've been hearing that staff was told not to do any work on the aviation portions of the bill. This is Denise with Aviation Daily. Now, is the proposal going to the conference this afternoon, has it changed Title II or Title IV in any way?

REP. HOEKSTRA: The House has not received-at least as of late yesterday afternoon-we had not received a response on the international relations issues or the transportation issues. So I'm not-the offer may reflect what our staffs believe to be-a response to where we believe the Senate may be, but it does not reflect a response to a document that we received back from the Senate.

REP. HYDE: Peter, this is Henry Hyde, I've just joined the conversation.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Good, welcome.

REP. HYDE: Thanks.

Q Congressman, I have a question for you. What happened to all the momentum coming out of August and building over time? How did that all dissipate to a point where a few days before the election-and there still isn't agreement on the major issues here?

REP. HOEKSTRA: I didn't --

SEN. COLLINS: I didn't hear the beginning of the question.

Q The beginning was how did we lose the momentum from of August and late July when the report came out and everybody-you know, all of you said you were behind the recommendations and getting them enacted before the election. How did we get to this point where there's basically no bill, no agreements on the major issues?

SEN. COLLINS: Well, I don't think there has been a lack of effort or a loss of momentum. If you look at when the report came out, which I believe was July 22nd, the Senate started to work right away, immediately, holding eight hearings starting with the very next week. The House soon followed suit also. Both the House and the Senate devoted eight days in floor debate, rather than doing many other pressing issues in order to get this bill to conference. The House also worked very hard to get it to conference. I think what has happened is just that the issues have proven to be very difficult to resolve, because the House and the Senate passed bills that took a very different approach. But I think that the Congress actually-and Congress meaning both House and Senate-actually acted remarkably swiftly in response to the commission's report, and the commission thinks so also, even though there's obviously disappointment with where we are now.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: I agree-this is Joe Lieberman. I agree with everything Susan has said. Let me just add this word: W e focused on Title I, so-called, on the powers of the intelligence director and the Counterterrorism Center, and intelligence reform generally, I should say, and we put the other parts to the side. And in focusing on intelligence reform, we focused on the most central and difficult part of the conference process. But I want to assure you that there have been discussions on every other part of the bill, and on some there is substantial progress made, including I'd take the liberty of saying where you have some hope and appreciation of what's happened on the foreign policy sections, which Congressman Hyde and Senate colleagues have come to-have had very productive discussions on, I'll say. And the same is true of transportation security. So if we can get the intelligence reform pieces to a point of common ground, I think we'll quite rapidly be able to incorporate the progress that's been made on other parts, or frankly just throw overboard for the moment some of the sections we just agree we're not going to be able to reach agreement on, non-intelligence sections, and that we'll save for another day.

REP. HARMAN: And if I could just add to that-it's Jane Harman-the letters I referenced at the beginning of the press call, the October 18 letter from the White House, the October 20 letter from the 9/11 commission, which I think are critical letters and could help us forge common ground, address what we call the global bill. And just reading from the 9/11 commission letter of October 20, with respect to what they call "additional measures," they say, quote, "Finally, we believe strongly that this bill is not the right occasion for tackling controversial immigration and law enforcement issues that go well beyond the commission's recommendations," unquote. And I do think, as everyone else has said, that if we could get through Title I-again, I urge reference to these two letters as our road map - and get to agreement there, we could get to agreement on the rest of it, because there is a lot we do agree on. And then we could put these more controversial provisions off for another day.

Q Chairman Hoekstra, this is Emily Pierce with Roll Call. Senator Lieberman has been talking about perhaps sort of jettisoning these controversial things, and how he got a sense from the conference call today that perhaps there might be some thought amongst other conferees to do that. What's your opinion of that? Do you think that it is possible to jettison these other controversial things, the Titles II and III, the stuff that does not have to do with intelligence reform?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Please notice that I didn't specify.

REP. HOEKSTRA: That's right, the senator didn't specify. As we've gone through the discussions, I think that there are lots of different views on what might be extraneous materials. There are lots of things that we agree on in the other titles. There are certain things that House members feel very uncomfortable with in Title I which they believe are extraneous. So the process we are now going through and the agreement that we had as we have been negotiating this, and as we will move forward, is that we don't have agreement on any section until we have agreement on the entire bill. And so that's the process that we're going through. Mr. Sensenbrenner has made some, I think, some good moves in the campaign the right direction. Representative Menendez has had the opportunity to input. Those discussions are continuing.

And, you know, what is in the bill and what is not in the bill-you know, that is what this is all about, as well as resolving some of the issues really around the authorities of the NID.

Q But do you think it's possible to get rid of some of these provisions? I mean, do you think that it is even remotely something that you guys could come to an agreement on?

REP. HOEKSTRA: Well, I mean, as I said today, the offer that the Senate will receive this afternoon removes the death penalty from Title II. We have-Representative Sensenbrenner believes that within our conference he can get rid of the expedited removal provisions, and also address the cap on aliens that are granted asylum. So it is clear that there is a willingness on the House to move on some of these. They will be part of the offer that will be coming over to the Senate. And we recognize, as we all certainly began this process, that there are compromises that are going to be made by all the participants, and they're not-we might not put it in the same language that Joe said-we're just going to jettison them. But, you know, as I said, there are things in the offer coming over today that we saw-we recognize that maybe-you know, that are not going to be acceptable in a final agreement with the Senate. We recognize that. They're being removed, even though we haven't formally gone through a negotiating process on that.

REP. HARMAN: Thank you all very, very much.

REP. HOEKSTRA: Okay, thank you very much.

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