President Bush and top administration officials took early steps yesterday to sort through recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, while some in Congress cautioned against rushing too quickly into a reorganization of the U.S. intelligence system.
The president, on vacation in Crawford, Tex., held a teleconference on intelligence changes with Vice President Cheney and his national security advisers to discuss how to handle the key proposals of the commission.
Campaigning yesterday in Kennewick, Wash., and Portland, Ore., Cheney said Bush wants another term to vanquish terrorists.
"What this president has accomplished in 31/2 years is remarkable, but the danger has not passed. The threat remains," the Associated Press quoted Cheney as saying in Kennewick. "And in the time ahead, we need the same steadfast presidential leadership."
In its report last week, the commission recommended establishing the office of a national intelligence director, to be confirmed by the Senate, inside the Executive Office of the President. The director would oversee not just the CIA but also the other 14 agencies that make up the intelligence community and that spend about $40 billion a year. A National Counterterrorism Center would be created to supervise intelligence operations within the United States and abroad.
On Capitol Hill, leaders of two Senate committees were discussing scheduling hearings for next week, and House committees began looking at setting up sessions for later in August. At the same time, members of Congress and senior administration and intelligence officials voiced caution, publicly and privately, about making changes before thoroughly vetting ideas and weighing options.
"We must be careful with what we do and not overreact to political momentum and pressure. . . . Intelligence is finely attuned; there is no margin for error," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Hagel said he plans to tell the panel's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), that "our committee should not roll over and play dead."
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the intelligence committee, warned: "Changing organizations to solve one problem can create weaknesses elsewhere. We must also remember that there are no easy solutions or silver bullets."
One aspect of the commission's proposed reorganization that drew skepticism was establishing the national intelligence director, or intelligence czar, as part of the White House.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he has "strong feelings that there was a need to depoliticize the head of intelligence" -- in part by keeping the official out of the Cabinet and establishing distance from the president. Warner also favors giving the top intelligence officer a fixed term that bridges from one administration to the next.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the committee and also a member of the intelligence panel, has already voiced concern about the political independence that an intelligence director would have inside the Executive Office of the President.
As Levin put it Sunday on CNN: "I think that we can do a great deal of reforming. But to me, the greatest issue is whether or not we can separate any kind of political pressure from the intelligence assessments. . . . Whatever organizational structure we come up with, whether it's a new centralized national intelligence director, a counterterrorism center or not, we have got to make sure that the assessments which are provided are free from politics."
A senior administration official said yesterday that Bush is sensitive to such issues and that the president has voiced concern that having an intelligence director as part of the White House could create the appearance of partisanship. Bush, he said, wants to find ways to strengthen the community's independence, not appear to weaken it.
One possibility, an administration official said, is for Bush to follow the course taken in appointing Ridge. In October 2001, in response to congressional pressure, Bush set up by executive order the outlines of what became the Homeland Security Department and appointed Ridge as executive director and a Cabinet member.
It was not until the next year that legislation to create the department was approved by Congress and Ridge was confirmed by the Senate as a Cabinet member.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) asked the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs to evaluate the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations and put together a legislative package by Oct. 1.
The committee has tentatively scheduled a hearing for Monday with two commission members, former senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and former deputy attorney general Jamie S. Gorelick, scheduled to appear, a committee spokesman said. The commission's chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), and vice chairman, former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), had other commitments, the spokesman said.