President Bush called on Congress yesterday to create a national intelligence director and announced that he would build a national counterterrorism center as part of a refocused election-year effort to fend off future attacks.
Bush's statement embraced the two most significant of the 37 recommendations by the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but with significant limitations. Under his plan, the new intelligence chief would lack the authority over budgets, hiring and firing that the commission had envisioned.
The president's statement marked the beginning of an attempt to restructure the nation's intelligence machinery, which the commission said was long overdue. The creation of the director's position and the counterterrorism center are designed to allow swifter melding of domestic and foreign intelligence and to unify the work of the government's 15 spy agencies, which sometimes work at cross-purposes.
"We are a nation in danger," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden. "We're doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger."
Bush, whose aides had once suggested he would not undertake intelligence reform until a second term, was moving speedily in the heated political climate created by the presidential campaign and frequent television appearances by commissioners and families of Sept. 11 victims. Although Bush opposed creation of the commission and fought its requests for witnesses and documents, the White House said he now supports some version of every one of its suggestions.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who issued a blanket endorsement of the commission's recommendations two days after they were delivered on July 22, called Bush's proposal tardy and inadequate. "We cannot afford reluctance in the protection of our country," he said.
Bush said the new director "will serve as the president's principal intelligence adviser and will oversee and coordinate the foreign and domestic activities" of the intelligence community. He said the counterintelligence center "will become our government's knowledge bank for information about known and suspected terrorists," coordinating counterterrorism plans across the government and preparing the daily terrorism threat report for the president and other senior officials.
Three of the members of Bush's war cabinet who stood with him in the Rose Garden had opposed creation of the position, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who told the commission in March that the change would be "doing the country a great disservice."
Rather than adopting the commission's idea of making the position part of the White House structure, Bush proposed making the director a free-standing office of Cabinet rank but not actually in the Cabinet.
The commission had said the intelligence head should be stationed in the White House for maximum power and easy access to the president, but Bush's aides said that would encourage accusations that intelligence was being politicized.
Bush and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who later briefed reporters on the plan, made it clear that the director would not control the nation's $40 billion-a-year intelligence budgets. That power would remain with the individual Cabinet departments and agencies.
Bush said the director "ought to be able to coordinate budgets," and Card said that the director would have "significant input" and "tremendous clout" in developing the intelligence budget but that "it would have to be a developed budget consistent with other agencies." That is similar to the power now held by the director of central intelligence.
Administration officials said they realized that giving full budget power to the intelligence official would have ignited a huge battle with the bureaucracy, most notably with Rumsfeld, who now oversees several of the best-funded intelligence agencies.
Bush left many of the details to Congress. Several commissioners said they would lobby lawmakers to make sure the new director has the powers their report advocates.