Now that the National Intelligence Reform Act has passed, what do we get? A new office of the intelligence director, for one thing. Also, I'm guessing, a new office building of the intelligence director. Then there's the new intelligence director, of course, congressionally mandated to act reformed.
After much sturm and politicking, the act leaves military command decisions to military commanders -- for which we can be alternately irritated that this came onto the table and grateful it came off again. It also calls for information-sharing among different branches of intelligence. Which is a smart thing to do. But was an act of Congress the only way to do it?
More perplexing than what's in this bill, though, is what's been left out. Or cut out, rather. This is a huge, historic piece of legislation, wholly inspired by the systemic intelligence and immigration policy failures of Sept. 11, 2001 that allowed an extensive jihadist network to train, plot and operate freely in this country. Even so, the act the president will sign into law fails to plug up one of the most gaping homeland security holes: the ease with which practically anyone gets a state driver's license in this country, including, in 11 states, illegal aliens. Many other states require only a social security number, not difficult to come by fraudulently, to obtain a driver's license. The driver's license may be essential to life as we know it, providing the I.D. necessary to bank, buy and travel, but something's wrong with the system that allowed 19 Al Qaeda hijackers to amass 63 of them.
Republicans in the House of Representatives know this. A stalwart band, among them J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, ensured that the bill sent to the Senate included a provision for national standards to license drivers that would at least make it more difficult for murder-minded aliens to snooker the local DMV and tootle off on a path of mass destruction.
(Not incidentally, such driver's license reform is urged in the 9/11 Commission Report.) Also written into the House version of the intelligence reform bill was an equally sensible provision to tighten asylum laws that now allow potential terrorists free movement in the country.
Both provisions may be important measures, but they're really just the most minimal kinds of reform. Indeed, the fact that they are only now being introduced, three-and-a-half years after the 9/11 attacks, makes a body sputter, "It's about time!" After all was said, though, it's still not adequately reformed yet. These bare-minimum fixes didn't make it into the bill's final draft. Shockingly, Senate Republicans, pushed by the White House, decided to placate Democratic critics who said these common-sense measures were too "controversial." They were "poison pills" for the bill, agreed Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who shepherded the bill through the Senate. They were "egregious" and "extraneous" measures, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"Egregious" and "controversial" or vital security measures? Rep. Nathan Deal, Georgia Republican, settled the argument for me when he reminded his fellow lawmakers how the 9/11 hijackers, "all of whom entered our country illegally, overstayed their visas or obtained fraudulent visas," were able to board the four doomed passenger jets. "The primary identification documents that allowed them to board those airplanes were state driver's licenses," Deal said.
"Nothing in this bill would prevent those hijackers from using those same driver's licenses to board those same airplanes and repeat the events of 9/11."
Why not? It is equally shocking and mystifying that American lawmakers would regard a provision to regulate the legal allocation of state driver's licenses as "controversial." What is "controversial" about trying to prevent another Mohammed Atta from gaining official cover to launch potentially catastrophic attacks on our country? Rep. Tancredo called the legislation "an empty shell of a bill," saying it would "provide far more fodder for politicians' press releases than it will security for the public. It creates the illusion of security," he added, "which in some ways is more dangerous than doing nothing at all."
The last illusion of security I recall harkens back to Sept. 10, 2001. Good thing Sensenbrenner has already promised to scoop the snipped-up immigration-security reforms off the Senate floor and bring them back in a new House bill on the first day of the next Congress. In a letter to House Republicans this week, President Bush promised he would help enact asylum reform and national standards for issuing driver's licenses, which is encouraging. After all, these are probably the most intelligent reforms of all.