Intelligence overhaul draws a yawn from voters

Friday, October 29th 2004, 9:06 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans and Democrats were for it _ and against it. The families of Sept. 11 victims opposed one plan and approved another. The House wanted its bill, the Senate preferred its own.

And most Americans didn't seem to care.

To the dismay of the Sept. 11 commission and families of those killed that day, voters haven't demanded the reshuffling of the nation's spy shops the way they supported folding two dozen agencies into a new Homeland Security Department two years ago.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 al-Qaida attack on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress passed the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, bestowing broad new powers on police and prosecutors to monitor and hold suspected terrorists. It took a little time for President Bush to buy into the idea of a Homeland Security Department, but once he did, Congress created one after the 2002 election.

The former elected officeholders from each party who headed the Sept. 11 commission had counted on lawmakers remembering how some Democrats were pummeled for resisting Bush's demand to end civil service and union rights for some federal workers being moved to Homeland Security. Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a Vietnam War triple amputee, lost his seat after taking the side of public employee unions in the dispute.

But voters this year showed little interest in rewarding supporters or punishing opponents of legislation turning the Sept. 11 commission's terror-fighting recommendations into law before Election Day.

When it came to crunch time, lawmakers ``sort of backed off and waited for the reaction of the American public,'' said Mary Fetchet, whose 24-year-old son Brad died in the World Trade Center attacks.

The response of the American public has been a yawn. Voters and candidates aren't bringing up the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations and Congress's inaction on them.

``It's not a top issue on people's minds,'' House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, pointed out weeks ago.

Even in New York, which lost more people than anywhere else in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, voters don't seem interested in punishing Congress for not acting on the commission recommendations, said independent pollster Lee Miringoff, head of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

``I don't think there's a great undercurrent of feelings that way,'' Miringoff said. ``If the incumbents thought their jobs were on the line, there'd be a little more push to get something done. It'll come back, but right now it's not an issue that's driving the voters.''

Fetchet said voters understand what Congress is arguing about and don't care. ``Most people are like I was before Sept. 11: They don't even know when Congress is in session,'' she said.

With the failure to get legislation before the election, the only major changes inspired by the Sept. 11 commission so far are Bush's executive orders giving the CIA director additional power over the intelligence community; establishing a national counterterrorism center; and promoting intelligence-sharing across the government.

Without a new law, all could be negated with no more than a future president's signature.

Congress isn't going to give up, all sides said. ``We will continue to work as long as it takes to pass real and comprehensive intelligence reform in Congress,'' Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said in a joint statement this week.

But the same differences that blocked a deal before Election Day will be there after it.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly for a bill that gives strong authority to a national intelligence director. The House does that, too, but it also gives the government new anti-terrorism and border security powers and increases penalties for illegal immigration.

The White House has endorsed parts of both bills, including the Senate's decision to give the intelligence director power over the budgets of intelligence agencies. But in a break from the White House, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers lobbied for the House bill because it will keep most of the spending decisions on intelligence in the hands of the defense secretary.

Even the victims' families are split. At competing news conferences, the 9/11 Families for a Secure America demanded passage of the House bill _ or nothing; the Family Steering Committee for the Sept. 11 commission made the same pitch for the Senate plan.

``If it isn't passed before the election, that probably will ensure its passage (later because) people will stop playing politics,'' DeLay said this week.