President Bush plans to begin making decisions about restructuring the nation's intelligence machinery within days and may enact some changes by executive order or regulatory action without waiting for Congress, White House officials said Sunday.
Aides suggested for the first time that despite the opposition of some in the administration, Bush is headed toward backing some variation of the Sept. 11 commission's call for a national intelligence director who would report directly to the president. Some White House officials have questioned whether the intelligence director would be considered independent if the position were under White House control. Aides said Bush is considering mechanisms to make the job less political, such as a term that does not overlap the president's.
The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center delivered its recommendations Thursday for broad changes to intelligence agencies, and aides said Bush began reading the report on Friday as he flew to his ranch in Crawford, where he will spend the week of the Democratic National Convention. Bush will discuss the options with his national security team via videoconference on Monday, a White House official said.
"We will move on all fronts very aggressively in the coming days and weeks," the official said. "We're going to focus on all the recommendations and determine which ones can be done through executive branch action. The president said he wants this on a fast track."
The White House comments, a day before Democrats open their nominating convention in Boston, show what a major issue the fallout from Sept. 11 has become in the close presidential race.
The urgent pace, and the White House's willingness to discuss it, reflects the realization by Bush's aides that he is now vulnerable to charges that he could be doing more to protect the nation against terrorism, when claiming leadership on the issue was central to his reelection strategy, Republican advisers said.
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry released his plans for intelligence reform six days ahead of the commission report, and he plans to argue at the convention that he would be more effective than Bush at guarding the nation against terrorism.
Kerry sent a letter to the commission's leaders Saturday endorsing their blueprint, calling for "immediate action" and identifying 16 recommendations on which he said the "president can act alone."
"I am committed to do all I can to make sure that your efforts will be met with action," Kerry said in the letter.
Kerry said Thursday that if he were elected and not enough progress had been made on the recommendations, he would convene an "emergency security summit" to bring together congressional leaders of both parties and heads of the intelligence agencies. "Mark my words," he said after a campaign appearance in Detroit, "if I am elected president and there still has not been sufficient progress rapidly in these next months on these issues, then I will lead."
The commission recommended that the current position of director of central intelligence be replaced with a national intelligence director, in the executive office of the president, who would oversee and control the budget of the 15-agency intelligence community.
The commissioners said that without a more integrated approach to intelligence, "it is not possible to 'connect the dots' " about terrorist intentions.
The report also called for a national counterterrorism center to pool intelligence about domestic and foreign terrorist organizations. The commissioners acknowledged arguments against reorganizing the government while the nation is at war but wrote, "Surely the country cannot wait until the struggle against Islamist terrorism is over."
The White House, which had initially responded by saying Bush would take the recommendations under advisement, is facing pressure from commission members of both parties, who are making the rounds of talk shows to say that swift work is needed and that another attack is probably coming. Republican leaders in Congress once had said they would not get to the matter until October, but said Friday that they will hold hearings in August, between the two political conventions.
Bush's aides said that the White House staff worked over the weekend to figure out what it could do on its own, and that it was looking for changes that would not cost money and thus require authorization from Congress. Specifically, the White House is looking at the commission's call for the creation of incentives for agencies to share intelligence about transnational terrorism, with the report saying the " 'need to share' must replace 'need to know.' " The White House contends the president has already taken action to tighten access to ports, airports and borders, and to crack down on terrorists' funding sources. But the commission report says more must be done, and Bush's aides said announcements may be made in those areas.
Bush's aides said that the panel's most ambitious recommendations, including creation of the counterterrorism center and national intelligence director, are likely to require approval from Congress. But with Republicans controlling both chambers, Bush's endorsement could prod action before the Nov. 2 election.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice is to arrive at the ranch on Monday to work with Bush on his response to the report. Last week, Bush directed White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to convene a task force of national security and homeland security officials to work on intelligence changes.
Rand Beers, Kerry's national security adviser, said from Boston that the Massachusetts senator "has fully embraced the commission's recommendations and believes we need to act on them without further delay."
"In particular, we urgently need a comprehensive strategy to deal with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, a global coalition of nations working together and a real director of national intelligence who can lead the reform throughout the intelligence community," Beers said. "Time is not on our side."
The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that he is encouraged by the growing acknowledgment by the nation's leaders that "there is an emergency, that these terrorists plan to attack us again as soon as possible, and therefore Congress has got to act now and not next year sometime."
Kean and the panel's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether they would consider jointly running the new intelligence agency, appeared to welcome the idea.
"I'd do anything with Lee Hamilton," Kean said. "We've established a partnership here that is -- "
"Extraordinary," Hamilton interjected.
"Extraordinary," Kean repeated.
"I'd have to think about it," Hamilton said. "I've had a marvelous experience working with Tom Kean, and I think it's been a productive one, but that's a presidential call."