Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin yesterday questioned the need for a Cabinet-level intelligence czar, a new position that will be among the main recommendations of the presidential commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when it releases its findings Thursday.
"The idea of a czar to oversee the entire intelligence community . . . doesn't relate particularly to the world I live in," McLaughlin said on "Fox News Sunday." Although he said "a good argument could be made for" a czar, McLaughlin said that "with some modest changes in the way the CIA is set up, the director of central intelligence could carry out that function well and appropriately."
In a speech last month, McLaughlin, a 32-year CIA veteran, noted that the idea of an intelligence czar "was first floated in 1955 and has come up several times since." His main objection, repeated yesterday with the caveat that the commission proposal needs to be studied, was that "it would be hard to do . . . without adding an additional layer of bureaucracy."
The proposal for a White House-based national intelligence director is only one step in a broader plan to centralize the U.S. intelligence community that is now spread over 15 agencies in six Cabinet departments plus the CIA, according to sources familiar with the report.
The commission would give the new intelligence czar budgetary control over all intelligence activities and put him in the Cabinet to be the president's closest adviser. That would be done to make up for the new czar not having his own agency, sources said.
McLaughlin has said that the CIA director, wearing the other hat given in 1947 as director of central intelligence (DCI), could perform the same budgetary functions plus hire and fire senior officials. McLaughlin also recommended last month that the DCI have a fixed term that bridges presidential administrations, thereby making the post a "nonpolitical" position.
The commission seeks to politically insulate the position and is expected to note that the United States appears more vulnerable to terrorist attacks during transitions from one administration to the next. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred as the Bush national security team was still reviewing Clinton administration policy and planning changes and its newly confirmed officials were just taking over in key departments.
In defending his and other agencies against the expected criticism from the commission of their performance before the Sept. 11 attacks, McLaughlin said, "The intelligence community of today is not the intelligence community of 9/11." He noted that the community-wide counterterrorism effort back then was "300 people spread-eagled across a dike." Today, he said, 100 people do nothing but prepare watch lists of potentially dangerous terrorists.
McLaughlin declined to discuss the controversy over former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV and the trip he took to Niger in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program with uranium from Africa. He said the leaking of the name of Wilson's wife and her employment at the agency was under federal investigation.
Wilson's public discussion of his trip focused worldwide attention on President Bush's use in his January 2003 State of the Union address of Iraq's alleged moves to buy uranium to justify the claim that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program. The White House later acknowledged that the statement should not have been included in the speech.
In the recently released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the panel, and two other Republican members concluded that the plan to send Wilson to Niger "was suggested" by his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA employee who specialized in weapons of mass destruction. Wilson and senior intelligence officials have repeatedly denied that Plame played a role in selecting him to go to Niger other than as a conduit to come to the agency to discuss the issue.
Roberts based his conclusion in part on a memo Plame sent to her boss describing Wilson's "good relations'' with Niger officials. The committee report also disclosed that a CIA reports officer had told the staff that Wilson's wife had "offered up [Wilson's] name."
Wilson said yesterday on CNN that the reports officer's statement "was taken out of context" and in a letter to the Senate committee he had asked that the reports officer be re-interviewed. As for his wife's note to her boss about his Niger contacts, Wilson said that "he was told that somebody in that chain of command asked Valerie to do my list of curriculum vitae."
On how his trip to Niger was initiated, Wilson said, the committee "got that particular point wrong."