President Bush today accepted an independent commission's recommendation to establish an intelligence czar and a new counterterrorism center, but he differed with the panel in deciding that neither of them should work out of the White House.
"Today, I'm asking Congress to create the position of a national intelligence director," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden, where he was flanked by six of the nation's top national security officials. He said the new director "will be appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and will serve at the pleasure of the president," acting as his principal intelligence adviser while overseeing and coordinating foreign and domestic intelligence activities.
Bush also announced that "we will establish a national counterterrorism center" to build on the analytical work of the existing Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which was established by the CIA last year. He said the new organization "will become our government's knowledge bank for information about known and suspected terrorists" and "will coordinate and monitor counterterrorism plans and activities of all government agencies and departments."
But Bush said that, contrary to the recommendation of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the new intelligence director should not be part of his Cabinet.
"I will hire the person, and I can fire the person, which is . . . how you have accountability in government," Bush said in response to a reporter's question.
"I don't think that the office ought to be in the White House, however," he said. "I think it ought to be a stand-alone group to better coordinate, particularly between foreign intelligence and domestic intelligence matters. I think that's going to be one of the most useful aspects of the national intelligence director."
The Sept. 11 commission recommended in its final report issued July 22 that a National Counterterrorism Center be created "in the Executive Office of the President" to combine joint intelligence and operational planning in an agency mirroring the military's unified command concept.
The 10-member commission said the center should report to a new "national intelligence director," also working out of the White House and reporting directly to the president.
Bush's Democratic opponent in the Nov. 2 election, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, has joined the panel's members in calling for the immediate implementation of all of the commission's recommendations. But some members of Congress from both parties have balked at placing the intelligence czar and the counterterrorism center in the president's office, saying they should be autonomous to avoid becoming embroiled in politics.
Bush, whose administration has come under mounting pressure to adopt the commission's recommendations, made the announcements as authorities in New York and Washington tightened security today around buildings identified as potential targets of a major terrorist attack being planned by operatives of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was among the officials who stood with Bush today as he announced his support for an intelligence czar and a new counterterrorism center after a Cabinet meeting at the White House. Also flanking Bush were the acting director of the CIA, John E. McLaughlin; Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Attorney General John D. Ashcroft; and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the FBI. McLaughlin had previously expressed opposition to the creation of a new position of national intelligence director, a post that would supplant the CIA director's role as the nominal overseer of the 15 agencies comprising the U.S. intelligence community.
Calling the Sept. 11 commission's recommendation's "thoughtful and valuable," Bush said Congress should also take up the panel's advice to put the legislature's own house in order when it comes to oversight.
"I strongly agree with the commission's recommendation that . . . oversight of intelligence and of the homeland security must be restructured and made more effective," Bush said. "There are too many committees with overlapping jurisdiction, which wastes time and makes it difficult for meaningful oversight and reform."
"I mean, it seems like it's one thing to testify, and there will be oversight," Bush said. "It's another thing to make sure that the people who are engaged in protecting America don't spend all their time testifying."
For example, Ridge said that his department's leadership has testified before Congress 140 times.
In addition to creating a new counterterrorism center, Bush said it "may also be necessary to create a similar center" to help prevent the trafficking and spread of weapons of mass destruction. He said he would examine the merits of establishing such a body.
"We are a nation in danger," Bush said. "We're doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger."
Bush said Congress can think about the recommendations over August, while it is in recess, and "come back and act on them in September."
He dismissed criticism of his performance from Kerry, who is on the campaign trail following his formal nomination as the Democratic Party's candidate last week.
Bush said that under the proposed reorganization, the national intelligence director "will assume the broader responsibility of leading the intelligence community across our government," while the CIA would be managed by a separate director. He said creating the new position would require "a substantial revision of the 1947 National Security Act" and that he looks forward to working with Congress on that reform.
Bush said the new counterterrorism center would prepare a daily terrorism threat report for the president and senior officials, with the center's director reporting to the new national intelligence director once that position is created. Until then, he said, "the center will report to the director of the CIA."