President Bush called on Congress yesterday to create a national intelligence director and announced that he would build a national counterterrorism center as part of a refocused election-year effort to fend off future attacks.
Bush's statement embraced the two most significant of the 37 recommendations by the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but with significant limitations. Under his plan, the new intelligence chief would lack the authority over budgets, hiring and firing that the commission had envisioned.
The president's statement marked the beginning of an attempt to restructure the nation's intelligence machinery, which the commission said was long overdue. The creation of the director's position and the counterterrorism center are designed to allow swifter melding of domestic and foreign intelligence and to unify the work of the government's 15 spy agencies, which sometimes work at cross-purposes.
"We are a nation in danger," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden. "We're doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger."
Bush, whose aides had once suggested he would not undertake intelligence reform until a second term, was moving speedily in the heated political climate created by the presidential campaign and frequent television appearances by commissioners and families of Sept. 11 victims. Although Bush opposed creation of the commission and fought its requests for witnesses and documents, the White House said he now supports some version of every one of its suggestions.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who issued a blanket endorsement of the commission's recommendations two days after they were delivered on July 22, called Bush's proposal tardy and inadequate. "We cannot afford reluctance in the protection of our country," he said.
Bush said the new director "will serve as the president's principal intelligence adviser and will oversee and coordinate the foreign and domestic activities" of the intelligence community. He said the counterintelligence center "will become our government's knowledge bank for information about known and suspected terrorists," coordinating counterterrorism plans across the government and preparing the daily terrorism threat report for the president and other senior officials.
Three of the members of Bush's war cabinet who stood with him in the Rose Garden had opposed creation of the position, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who told the commission in March that the change would be "doing the country a great disservice."
Rather than adopting the commission's idea of making the position part of the White House structure, Bush proposed making the director a free-standing office of Cabinet rank but not actually in the Cabinet.
The commission had said the intelligence head should be stationed in the White House for maximum power and easy access to the president, but Bush's aides said that would encourage accusations that intelligence was being politicized.
Bush and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who later briefed reporters on the plan, made it clear that the director would not control the nation's $40 billion-a-year intelligence budgets. That power would remain with the individual Cabinet departments and agencies.
Bush said the director "ought to be able to coordinate budgets," and Card said that the director would have "significant input" and "tremendous clout" in developing the intelligence budget but that "it would have to be a developed budget consistent with other agencies." That is similar to the power now held by the director of central intelligence.
Administration officials said they realized that giving full budget power to the intelligence official would have ignited a huge battle with the bureaucracy, most notably with Rumsfeld, who now oversees several of the best-funded intelligence agencies.
Bush left many of the details to Congress. Several commissioners said they would lobby lawmakers to make sure the new director has the powers their report advocates.
"You don't want this person as a figurehead," the commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean (R), said in a telephone interview. "Budget authority is very important."
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste (D) called budget authority "an absolutely essential part of our recommendation." Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer (D) said, "The detail will be the difference between success and failure."
Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, said last week that if the new intelligence chief was not given hiring and firing and budgetary control over the intelligence community agencies, he would oppose any change in the current system.
"If Congress takes the shell of this idea and then dilutes the powers so that it looks like they've done it but they haven't really done it, then you will have another bureaucratic layer," he said on PBS's "NewsHour." "They might as well not do anything at all, because they'll make us more worse off."
The new directorate would eliminate the position of director of central intelligence (DCI), one of the two jobs now held by the director of the CIA.
Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin had opposed the change. White House press secretary Scott McClellan indicated yesterday that Bush was nearing an announcement about a permanent CIA director to succeed George J. Tenet, who left office July 11. "I expect that he'll have more to say on that soon," McClellan said.
Bush's plan would give the new intelligence director many of the responsibilities the DCI now holds. For example, the DCI is by law the principal intelligence adviser to the president and, as CIA director, also has the authority to direct, at the president's request, the clandestine collection of intelligence and initiation of covert actions.
Under the Bush plan, however, the new intelligence chief would lose any direct control over CIA activities. Today, the DCI sits in on the president's morning briefing and manages preparation of the threat matrix. The new chief would do that also.
The DCI now has a 300-person intelligence community staff through which he attempts to manage the budget and intelligence activities of the entire community. The Bush plan would replace that group with a new staff for the new intelligence director that would be expanded to include analysts.
As for authority to hire or fire top personnel within the 15 agencies in the community, the DCI today has that power over the CIA and a secondary role in choosing the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon-based unit that handles imagery satellites, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates intelligence satellites as part of the Pentagon. Those two agencies have CIA employees.
Under Bush's proposal, the new director would be asked to concur in appointments made by Pentagon and Homeland Security officials.
The Bush proposal does not include giving the new intelligence chief power over personnel. Card said he should play a "coordinating role in the selection of people who are going to serve in the intelligence community." But, Card said, the chief would not have authority that would "undermine the chain of command and the responsibilities" that accrue to the Cabinet officials in charge of departments that house the intelligence agencies, such as the Defense Department.
Where the Sept. 11 commission would give its national counterterrorism center and other national intelligence centers the power to order clandestine operations and collections, Bush's proposal would apparently give its counterterrorism unit only the authority to gather intelligence from other agencies and prepare coordinated threat information. But his plan does not further specify the center's role.
Although the CIA would lose much of its authority under the commission's plan, the president's proposal would give the acting CIA director additional interim authority with respect to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the coordinated counterterrorism strategy group that meets regularly at 5 p.m. in his conference room.
The Republican leadership in Congress has also scrambled to look responsive to the commission and plans a series of hearings during the August recess. Asked whether he would call lawmakers back this month, or whether they could act after Labor Day, as planned, Bush said, "They can think about them over August and come back and act on them in September."
Kerry told reporters in Grand Rapids, Mich., that many of the changes were "very obvious" and should have been made long ago. "I regret that the president seems to have no sense of urgency to make America as safe as it needs to be," Kerry said. "The time to act is now, not later."
Bush's proposals drew a generally favorable response on Capitol Hill, although several Democrats said they may not be tough enough.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.