The new national counterterrorism center established by President Bush under an executive order is to begin operations in early December, at about the same time that Congress may be debating whether to approve a law that would create a different version of the same agency.
The center would be the "primary organization in the United States government for analyzing and integrating" all intelligence "pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism, excepting purely domestic counterterrorism information." The center's director is to supervise correlation of the terrorism intelligence and produce reports to be sent to the president and other senior officials.
It would operate under the "direction and control" of Director of Central Intelligence Porter J. Goss, according to the president's order. Goss, with the approval of Bush, would choose the director.
The center would also "conduct strategic operational planning for counterterrorism activities," but assign the carrying out of operations to the CIA, FBI and Pentagon. The center "shall not direct the execution of operations," the order says.
As established by the compromise reform bill now before Congress and which could be discussed again on Monday, the proposed center, and particularly its director, would have more authority than the president's version. The director would be a presidential appointee, approved by the Senate, and report directly to the president on "the planning and progress of joint counterterrorism operations," according to the bill.
The director would also report to the new director of national intelligence, but on matters such as the center's budget, terrorism analyses produced and the counterterrorism operations carried out by other agencies.
Under the compromise bill, the director of national intelligence "shall oversee" the new center, unlike the Bush approach, in which the CIA director "shall have authority, direction, and control over the Center and the Director of the Center."
While most of the public debate about the deadlock over passage of the intelligence reform legislation has focused on budget authority of the new director of national intelligence and some controversial immigration provisions, some legislators and experienced intelligence experts on Capitol Hill and in the government have privately pointed out issues they have with the center as it is authorized in the compromise legislation.
The center set up by the bill "could make things worse and create genuine problems," according to John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One of a bipartisan group of 11 former senior officials who in September warned Congress "not to rush efforts to overhaul U.S. intelligence," Hamre said in a recent interview that the bill "could create tense relations because its director is a presidential appointee."
It is not clear whether the center director is "a policy job or a staff job," Hamre said, given that he or she is "a confirmed presidential appointee with a direct reporting responsibility to the president."
Hamre also said the major emphasis put on the center by the congressional bill has the effect of "taking one problem and organizing the whole government intelligence structure around this one problem." Congress, he said, "has slapped a bill together and handed it back to the administration."
Ironically, the compromise bill gives the director of national intelligence authority to resolve disagreements should they arise between the center director and a Cabinet official, such as the defense secretary.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) also has mentioned potential conflicts in roles and reporting channels to the president, but he has focused his strong opposition to the measure on the threat it creates to warfighters in the event of a conflict between the defense secretary and the director of national intelligence over control of Pentagon intelligence collection agencies.