MANY OF THE recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission, if swiftly pursued by Congress and the administration, could tangibly improve the country's security, from further improvements in safeguarding transportation and port facilities, to greater investments in human expertise and intelligence collection in the Islamic world, to better emergency response systems. Yet, rather than tackle these mundane steps or engage in the difficult exercise of funding them, congressional leaders, joined by the White House, have begun a stampede to push through the commission's most attention-grabbing recommendation: a far-reaching and complex reorganization of the national intelligence community. President Bush implemented parts of the reform by executive order last week, creating a new bureaucratic body intended to centralize counterterrorism intelligence. Congress is on track to consider and possibly approve legislation before November that would establish a powerful new executive position: national intelligence director.
Remarkably, this mad rush is occurring in the absence of consensus among leaders of the intelligence community or outside experts about whether the reorganization is necessary, much less how it should work. A recent survey in The Post of seven former senior officials of the CIA, the National Security Council, the State Department and the National Security Agency, with decades of experience among them, revealed a dizzying disparity of views about which boxes should be placed where under a national intelligence director -- or whether the creation of that position might generate more problems than it would solve. Sadly, the response to the Sept. 11 commission has been guided not by such experts but by the strategists of this fall's election campaigns. Democrats, led by presidential nominee John F. Kerry, have been demanding the immediate and unqualified adoption of the commission's reorganization plan; after some hesitation, the Bush administration has yielded rather than risk being characterized as unzealous in its response to terrorism.
At best the proposed reorganization might alleviate one of the key problems identified by the Sept. 11 commission: the failure of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies to share information or to collaborate in identifying and tracking threats. Commission members believe that a new center for counterterrorism would have the effect of creating a "quarterback" to coordinate the government's efforts; they foresee the creation of additional centers for nonproliferation, anti-drug operations and China. The national intelligence director would serve as the president's chief analyst and exercise government-wide control over personnel and budgets -- including the 80 percent of intelligence spending now embedded in the Defense Department.
One danger is that this reform, while seeming to respond to the lessons of Sept. 11, could ignore those of Iraq; oddly, Congress is pressing ahead without waiting for the conclusions of investigations of that failure. Yet, centralization of intelligence could increase the danger of the "groupthink" that prevailed on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as that of a politicization of intelligence collection. It might make it harder for agencies that serve particular clients -- such as battlefield commanders -- to accomplish their specialized missions. It would attack one set of "stovepipes" -- separate agencies for intelligence collection -- by adding another, in the form of centers divided by subject areas.
Will this massive bureaucratic exercise make the United States more secure? The plain truth is that no one knows. That's why Congress and the administration would be wise to resist the pressures of the political season and limit the extent of organizational change. Mr. Bush's orders of last week created the new counterterrorism center but curtailed its operational authority; they gave greater authority over other agencies to the director of central intelligence, while preserving the Defense Department's control over its own tactical intelligence. The president appears ready to agree to a national intelligence director who will replace the CIA chief as intelligence director and assume those new powers. Rather than push for still more radical change, Congress ought to allow time for those reforms to take hold -- or to fail.