The debate held before Congress voted to reorganize the nation’s intelligence agencies under the authority of an all-powerful intelligence czar was generally portrayed as a simple struggle between a united front of Republican and Democratic leaders on one hand and a handful of conservatives griping about immigration and military intelligence concerns on the other. But there was another front of opposition from the progressive end of the spectrum, which pointed to more serious issues.
The bill passed overwhelmingly–89 to 2 in the Senate and 336 to 75 in the House, where most of the opposition came from conservatives who wanted tougher anti-immigrant measures. Almost unnoted, however, was the opposition of one Democratic senator, West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, and eight Democratic Congressmen, including some of the most progressive members of the House, who recognized that the legislation included what Byrd, the dean of the Senate, described as “unsettling provisions.” He was particularly troubled by measures that make Congressional oversight more difficult, including a requirement that the new national intelligence director submit any Congressional testimony to the White House Office of Management and Budget for prior approval–thus preventing Congress from receiving nonpartisan intelligence analysis. Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, the ranking minority member on the House Appropriations Committee, pointed to a potentially more serious concern: “One of the bill’s most glaring shortcomings is that it does not guarantee that dissenting or alternative views will ever be clearly stated to the President. That was a major problem in the decision to go to war in Iraq.”
The most consistent concern among progressive foes of the legislation–such as Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich, Minnesota’s Martin Olav Sabo and Washington’s Jim McDermott, president of Americans for Democratic Action–was with the bill’s backdoor assaults on privacy protections. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the bill, the final agreement between the House and the Senate included measures that laid the groundwork for a de facto national ID card. It also unnecessarily expands law-enforcement powers to allow for more wiretapping of phones and eliminates “guilt by association” protections so that mere membership in a group identified by the Feds as a “terrorist organization” will for the first time in US history become a criminal offense. Some of the new law-enforcement powers were first proposed in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s widely discredited “Patriot Act II” proposal, which stirred so much opposition on both the right and the left that it was never taken up by Congress.
Considering all the problems with the bill, why didn’t more Democrats oppose it? Byrd notes that members had less than twenty-four hours to read the final version of the legislation. But the senior senator gets closer to the truth when he suggests that in the post-9/11 era most members of Congress, even when they wear the title of opposition, do not have much stomach for honest debate about fighting terrorism or defending liberty. “Like pygmies on the battlefield of history,” Byrd said of the Senate, “we cower like whipped dogs in the face of political pressure when it comes to issues like intelligence reform.”