We stand at a moment filled with potential for bringing about the responsible intelligence reforms needed to meet the threats of the 21st century. But if we allow the current national consensus for intelligence reform to become a tool in the partisan rancor of presidential politics, we risk doing enormous damage to our intelligence community. We must not allow false urgency dictated by the political calendar to overtake the need for serious reform. This is an enormous undertaking filled with consequences that will last a generation.
There is no debate about the need to reform our 20th century intelligence infrastructure. Yesterday President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry publicly discussed several reform ideas that Congress will consider. But there is much work to be done to bring about the right reforms. Policymakers must not shy away from this responsibility; we must embrace it. The stakes could not be higher. While inaction is unacceptable, serious consequences will come with reform. Policymakers owe it to the American people to understand these consequences before they act.
A mistaken impression has developed that since Sept. 11, 2001, little has been done to improve our intelligence capabilities. This is not true. We are unquestionably a safer nation today than we were three years ago. The legislative and executive branches of government have been reviewing and adjusting our intelligence -- the gathering, processing and management of it -- since Sept. 11. We are vastly more prepared to respond to biological or chemical terrorist attacks than before Sept. 11. Our border security, documentation, information sharing and coordination among government agencies have all been improved. Last month, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which I serve, issued the first part of our report on intelligence failures prior to the war in Iraq. We have begun the second phase of our report, which will include recommendations on reform of our intelligence community. We have heard and will continue to hear from current and former members of that community, intelligence experts and policymakers responsible for making decisions based on the intelligence they are provided.
In 2001 the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, provided the president with a comprehensive review of the intelligence community and recommendations.
Last month the Sept. 11 commission, led by former New Jersey governor Tom Kean and former Indiana representative Lee Hamilton, produced a remarkable bipartisan document that offered recommendations for improving our intelligence and security structures. All Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for their work.
This year President Bush designated a bipartisan panel to examine U.S. intelligence capabilities. The commission, led by former senator and governor Chuck Robb of Virginia and federal appellate judge Laurence Silberman, has been given a broad mandate to "assess whether the Intelligence Community is sufficiently authorized, organized, equipped, trained and resourced to . . . support United States Government efforts to respond to . . . the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, related means of delivery, and other related threats of the 21st Century." They are to report their findings to the president by March 31.
In addition to the intelligence committees, Senate and House committees are studying reform of our intelligence community. Some will hold hearings during the August congressional recess. The work of intelligence reform cuts a wide swath across our government. All these hearings in committees of jurisdiction are critical for any reforms to succeed.
The American people should have confidence that our intelligence system is the finest in the world. This is no reason to ignore the reforms needed to meet the threats we face, but it is reason for the American people to feel secure. They should not be misled into believing that they are at risk because of an incompetent, inadequate intelligence system. Panic is not the order of the day. Responsible reform is the objective.
Our society is the most open, transparent and free society in history. Because of this, we will always face risks. The leaders charged with keeping this country safe should never be satisfied that we have done enough. There will always be room to improve our intelligence and security systems.
We will reform our intelligence community. The responsibilities of leadership require our action. But we must not rush haphazardly through what may be the most complicated and significant government reorganization since World War II. By the time the commission that President Bush empaneled to examine U.S. intelligence reports to him next March, we will have completed a massive series of investigations and hearings and a decisive presidential election.
The consequences of the decisions we make regarding intelligence reform will ripple far beyond our shores. The security of the next generation of Americans and global stability depend on our ability to wisely answer history's call. We must match the timeliness of our actions with wisdom and reason. This requires responsible reform.
The writer is a Republican senator from Nebraska.