The Senate hearing today on reorganizing intelligence, the first of more than a dozen hastily arranged congressional sessions through the month of August, comes amid an intense examination by President Bush, the National Security Council and Defense Department aimed at deciding what changes can be made swiftly without hurting current counterterrorism operations.
President Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., held another videoconference yesterday with his national security advisers to discuss a set of executive orders he plans to issue next week, his aides said. White House officials hope those steps will relieve political pressure for more radical, immediate change as a result of the Sept. 11 commission's prescription for overhauling the U.S. intelligence system.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld brought seven top former defense and law enforcement officials together for lunch with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to discuss the commission's recommendations and to look for short-term remedies that could be proposed while more complicated restructuring is considered.
"The pressure will be on them to do something in the short term," said William S. Cohen, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, who attended the lunch. "What can you do in the short term that doesn't create other problems?"
"The rolling ball that is gaining momentum," as Cohen put it, is a set of controversial proposals made by the commission after its investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Among them is the appointment of a national intelligence director within the Executive Office of the President who would coordinate and oversee the CIA and 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies. Another proposal would bring together CIA, military and law enforcement officials to plan counterterrorism operations in the United States and abroad. The latter would require lifting restrictions on military and intelligence involvement in domestic matters.
The family members of the Sept. 11 victims and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) have endorsed the commission's recommendations, but some intelligence experts caution that the key proposals may not fix the problems that have been identified over the past two years.
The president, who did not favor impaneling the commission and then said he was in no rush to institute further reforms, has now decided he must do something soon, aides have said. White House and congressional officials say the president seeks to blunt criticism by Democrats that he has not done enough to address what the commission concluded was an utter failure to detect any aspect of the terrorist plot.
The Sept. 11 commission met for 20 months but spent only the past month on the question of reforming the U.S. intelligence system, said commission members. Task forces were assigned specific issues to investigate for subsequent debate by commissioners and staff. "It was a month-long process," said Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D), "with some easily accepted and some not."
Hamilton and Chairman Thomas H. Kean (R) will be the only witnesses at today's hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
One proposal that has drawn criticism from former CIA directors and some White House officials is establishing a national counterterrorism center within the Executive Office of the President. Hamilton said he supported the idea as a way to coordinate across many disciplines and agencies the gathering of intelligence and operational planning, including covert action at home and abroad.
"It makes sense to put it there because they are analyzing from a lot of sources and have to act with presidential authority," Hamilton said. Asked whether the commission weighed past problems that arose when the White House directed covert actions, including the Iran-contra scandal, Hamilton said that was a "genuine concern."
Some who are skeptical of the commission's recommendations also argue that coordination and sharing of sensitive threat information among government agencies is much improved since Sept. 11, 2001. For example, two key elements of the proposed national counterterrorism center are run by the CIA: the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and a counterterrorism center at CIA. Both have staff detailed to them from the FBI, Pentagon and other agencies. The two offices, however, do not mix foreign and domestic operations, which commission members concluded was necessary to effectively deal with the terrorist threat.
Under current procedures, there is a 5 p.m. daily meeting in the CIA director's office in which material for the next day's threat matrix is put together to present to the president the following morning. At that White House meeting, at which FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin are usually present, direction for future operations at home and abroad are discussed, according to a senior intelligence official.