The intelligence reorganization proposed by the Sept. 11 commission would have the overall effect of sharply reducing the influence of the CIA while increasing the importance of the Pentagon and giving the White House more direct control over covert operations, according to assessments by a range of experts including commission and congressional staff members, legislators and current and former intelligence officials.
Most public attention has focused on the commission's recommendation to create a national intelligence director inside the Executive Office of the President who would have hiring, firing and budgetary authority over the 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community.
But the more controversial and wide-ranging part of the commission's plan, according to both those who support it and those who are skeptical, is a dramatic realignment of the intelligence-gathering roles played by agencies across the government, a shift that stretches beyond the counterterrorism role that was the commission's main focus.
That restructuring will be a central focus of congressional hearings on the commission's recommendations -- the first of which is set for tomorrow -- and is under scrutiny by White House officials who are trying to quickly decide which proposals they will back.
The commission plan calls not only for the creation of a national counterterrorism center to coordinate anti-terrorist intelligence efforts government-wide but also for the establishment of an unspecified number of national intelligence centers. These centers, overseen by the national intelligence director, would focus on the day's major issues, such as weapons proliferation, international crime and troublesome areas in the Middle East, Asia and Eurasia.
The centers would diminish the CIA's influence in several ways, officials point out. The commission said it hopes each of the new intelligence centers would become the president's main source of analysis for its area of expertise -- supplanting a role of the CIA director.
Moreover, the centers, whose staffs would be drawn from the CIA, the FBI and the Defense and State departments, would not necessarily be located at the CIA, where those roles are mainly housed today, but "in whatever department or agency is best suited for them," the commission recommended.
Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, said that structure is based on the reform of the U.S. military under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Under that system, the branches of the military operate under a single, unified command to ensure coordination.
The new national intelligence director, Zelikow said, would be the president's chief intelligence adviser and would manage covert operations and the collection and analysis of information through the intelligence centers, much as the defense secretary directs military operations through the unified commanders around the world. That was to address criticism that U.S. intelligence agencies did not communicate well enough to detect patterns that might have foiled the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in military affairs at the Brookings Institution, questioned whether the structure would work effectively. He said the Pentagon's unified command structure works in part because the commanders are in regional command centers far from Washington. "By contrast, the operational teams for intelligence would be either in the White House or in one of the existing agencies, and thus presumably strongly influenced by wherever they were located," O'Hanlon said.
O'Hanlon and other analysts note that the Pentagon, in contrast to the CIA, not only would retain most of its roles under the commission's proposal but also would gain influence.
The commission recommends letting the Pentagon take over "lead responsibility" for covert paramilitary operations, which in the recent past, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, had rested primarily with the CIA. The commission report said the agency had "unsatisfactory" results in such operations before Sept. 11, a reference to failed attempts to kill or capture Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
Other experts have raised questions about placing the national intelligence director within the Executive Office of the President, as recommended by the commission, particularly when the official will oversee intelligence operations both inside the United States and abroad.
Former CIA director Robert M. Gates said that recommendation troubled him the most. "The line between foreign and domestic covert operations is not clear," Gates said in an interview, adding that it reflects a "lack of historic perspective."
He recalled the problems caused when the White House directly ordered covert activities, citing Oliver L. North's generating arms shipments to Iran in 1985 and 1986 to get hostages released, and even the Watergate scandal, when the CIA helped those who broke into Daniel Ellsberg's office.
"There is a dire need for serious structural changes inside the agency and for restructuring the community," said Gates, now president of Texas A&M University. "But some of these ideas are not well thought-out, and the results could be disastrous."
John J. Hamre, former deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said yesterday he believed the commission was trying to create in the national intelligence centers "a clientele that would be demanding of a better quality of intelligence." But he said there were serious questions "about what they are and how they would be wired into the system."
The commission's Zelikow said in an interview, "Ours is not a panacea. We may not have the right answers, but we looked at other options. If someone can come up with a better way, they should." He said the commission proposals were designed "to make a difference in the real world for real problems and were not just academic fixes."