IT IS TRUE, as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the Sept. 11 commission, that "bold and comprehensive changes are sometimes only possible in the wake of catastrophic events." Yet it is also true that the kind of far-reaching overhaul of the nation's intelligence community recommended by the commission requires careful deliberation. A rush to reform driven by the election calendar could yield an ill-considered system that would take years to fix. Better to go more slowly and get it right -- especially considering that the changes will be made in the heat of battle, as the latest warnings serve to remind.
But just the opposite seems to be happening. President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) appear engaged in a game of reform one-upsmanship. Mr. Kerry called last week for the commission recommendations to be adopted "with great haste." Mr. Bush responded yesterday with his own hurriedly crafted plan. Mr. Kerry immediately pushed for more, saying that Mr. Bush, if he "had a sense of urgency about this," would call Congress back from its recess "and get the job done now." All this posturing is setting up a dangerous dynamic for this fall in which lawmakers -- wary of being labeled obstructionist and mindful of the political headway Republicans made with that tactic on homeland security two years ago -- feel compelled to vote for whatever intelligence reform is plopped before them. The stakes are too high for the subject to be treated this way.
Mr. Bush cast the plan he unveiled yesterday, to create a director of national intelligence and a national counterterrorism center, as embracing the commission's recommendations. In fact the administration's proposals differ in critical respects: Both the director and the center would have less power under his plan than in the commission's proposal. Where the commission would invest the intelligence director with the power that really matters in Washington -- control over budgets -- the administration would merely give the director, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. explained yesterday, "an awful lot of input into the development of any budgets in the intelligence community." The commission would grant the intelligence director power to "approve and submit nominations" of the heads of the CIA and other intelligence agencies; the Bush plan contemplates only a "concurrence" role for the intelligence chief. And while the Sept. 11 commission would give the new counterterrorism center responsibility for operational planning, the model outlined by Mr. Bush sounds like a souped-up version of the existing Terrorist Threat Integration Center, with its more analytical role.
Some will criticize the Bush plan as "commission lite"; others may see it as a less disruptive compromise. Would the effect be to add layers of bureaucracy without the muscle to force meaningful change, or would the Bush plan supply the missing coordination without threatening civil liberties, as might a more powerful intelligence czar? These are the kinds of questions that call for sustained and urgent, but not panicked, debate.