The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks called yesterday for the creation of a super CIA-like center within the president's office where U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials together would analyze intelligence and plan domestic and overseas counterterrorism operations, something that is currently prohibited by U.S. law.
The national counterterrorism center, the most radical of the reform proposals set forth by the commission, would report to a new national intelligence director who would have budgetary and operational control over all 15 intelligence agencies and departments, according to the report.
The new office is needed to shake up a bureaucracy that the commission said is still stuck in the Cold War era, and the office would allow a more flexible approach to modern intelligence needs. In effect, the proposal would focus much of the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community on terrorism, making it as predominant as the Soviet Union and international communism were during the Cold War when they consumed well more than half the country's intelligence assets.
The recommendation marks such a major change that it will not be enacted soon, if ever, despite the commission's plea for immediate action, said members of Congress and administration officials.
Some commissioners acknowledged as much yesterday. "I am hopeful but not optimistic that these changes will be enacted prior to another attack on the United States," said former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).
The recommendations would necessitate significant changes in U.S. law and social policy, which has traditionally limited the role of intelligence agencies and the military in the United States. Currently the CIA cannot conduct domestic operations, does not help plan law enforcement activities and can possess only limited information about U.S. citizens under tightly controlled procedures. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 restricts the role of the military in domestic affairs. The law does allow the military to aid domestic law enforcement efforts in a limited way to stop international drug smuggling and respond to emergencies involving weapons of mass destruction.
The new center would assign covert activities in the United States or a foreign country to the appropriate agency -- the CIA, FBI or military -- for execution. The center would monitor each case and be responsible for its progress. The monitoring would be significant because the CIA's counterterrorism center already is tracking more than 100 terrorist cases, and the FBI, probably many more.
The center would take on the national warning system now handled domestically by the Department of Homeland Security and abroad by the State Department. It also would pool intelligence from all U.S. sources and provide the president and others with net assessments of terrorist capabilities. The CIA in recent years dropped such net assessments, which often took months to prepare -- a move the commission has criticized.
Members of the Sept. 11 commission argue that a more centralized intelligence structure is crucial to overcome the numerous failings outlined in yesterday's report, many of which involved not communicating warning signs among the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies
Under the current system, the panel has concluded, no one is held accountable for forcing agencies to share information and for coordinating an effective response to terrorist threats. The CIA director was briefed on the FBI's investigation of al Qaeda suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, for example, while the FBI's own director was not.
"The answer to the question that I repeatedly asked, and numbers of us asked in our hearings -- who is in charge, who is our quarterback -- was almost uniformly the president of the United States," said Democratic commissioner Jamie S. Gorelick. "This is not his full-time job, and it is an impossible situation for that to remain the case. We offer what we think is a good and helpful solution to that."
Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin said yesterday that the agency will study the recommendations with an eye to how they "can enhance the many changes that have been made since the 9/11 attacks." McLaughlin said the changes already made "have not only transformed the intelligence community's collection, operational and analytic capabilities in the war on terrorism, but have also strengthened our government's ability to deal with the threat to our homeland."
Neither the president nor McLaughlin has indicated support for the idea of a new intelligence chief.
The commission's investigation is the third of three major probes of intelligence failures since the Sept. 11 attacks. Last year, an unprecedented House-Senate joint inquiry looked at the strikes and produced many of the same findings and conclusions as the commission. Last month, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a 511-page report on an investigation into prewar intelligence on Iraq. In all, the U.S. government has spent more than $12 million and produced nearly 2,000 pages detailing intelligence mistakes and missed opportunities.
Despite this effort, support for major reform appears thin. President Bush is not backing it and has given yet another commission until March to make recommendations about changes. The upcoming presidential and congressional elections and a six-week legislative vacation are stealing Congress's attention.
Even when all eyes turn to intelligence reform once again, another formidable obstacle remains: The commission's proposal would require some congressional committees to relinquish power to other congressional committees. The commission, in fact, calls for a complete reorganization of congressional oversight.
Congress should create a joint committee for intelligence or create House and Senate committees that combine the authorizing and appropriate responsibilities, it says. Members should serve without terms, as they do now. Department of Homeland Security officials currently appear before 88 congressional committees and subcommittees
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, said the recommendations propose "changing around government in a way that takes power away from some people, and that's very tough in this town."
The commission compared its proposals for "joint" or "unified" intelligence collection, analysis, planning and operations to the U.S. military's successful reforms under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. The act, opposed at the time by every service secretary, forced competing military services to work together. But the reforms profoundly affected only two congressional committees.
"My experience in politics is when someone is asked to give up something, they come up with all sorts of reasons not to do it," Kerrey said.
Another major reason that the commission's reform proposal may go nowhere is that neither Congress nor the administration has come close to agreeing on what other changes should be made to the intelligence community. On Tuesday, for instance, the Senate intelligence panel held a rare public session on reform, taking testimony from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on a law she proposes to create an intelligence chief. The proposal received a skeptical response.
"A simple solution would be to make the secretary of defense the head of all intelligence because [the Defense Department] has all the resources," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said: "The wheels of change grind exceedingly slow . . . even if we come up with a rational approach."