Senior Senate and House members called for giving a new national intelligence director more authority than proposed by President Bush, arguing yesterday that the position must have budgetary and personnel powers over the 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.
As Congress moved forward with a series of summertime hearings on intelligence reorganization, leaders on Capitol Hill parted ways with the administration on specifics, and some cautioned against making changes too quickly and without enough deliberation.
President Bush on Monday endorsed two central recommendations of the Sept. 11, 2001, commission, but with significant restrictions: appointment of a national intelligence director to coordinate efforts of the CIA, Defense Department and other intelligence agencies, and creation of a national counterterrorism center.
Yesterday, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), vice chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, was among several who criticized Bush's recommendation that the intelligence chief participate in -- but not control -- spending and hiring-and-firing decisions across government agencies. "I worry that would create a kind of Potemkin national intelligence director, where you see the facade but there's not real authority behind it," said Lieberman, whose panel held one of two Capitol Hill hearings on intelligence reform.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, asked: "If you don't have the authority to pick the people, isn't a national director just a shell game and a shell operation?"
At a hearing held at the same time by the House Government Reform Committee, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), sounded a similar theme: "In this city, if you have a fancy title but you are not in the chain of command and you don't control the budget, you're a figurehead, and another figurehead is not what the 9/11 commission recommended and what our nation needs."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, responding to questions about the criticisms, indicated that Bush may be willing to negotiate on the plans he announced Monday.
The president, McClellan said, "made it very clear in his remarks that this person would have the authority and power he or she needs to do the job. . . . We're going to continue moving forward and talking in more detail about that authority as we move forward and as we work with Congress."
At the Senate hearing, directors of four intelligence organizations -- three of them created after Sept. 11 -- outlined their counterterrorism operations and defended them against criticism by the Sept. 11 commission. The commission, chaired by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies failed dramatically before the 2001 attacks in their work against the terrorism threat.
"I strongly disagree with Governor Kean's comment on Friday that the system today does not work," said John O. Brennan, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, created after the attacks so that foreign and domestic intelligence on terrorism could be analyzed in a central location. Brennan's center would become part of the new national counterterrorism center proposed by the commission and backed by Bush.
Brennan told the panel there is room for improvement in how the United States handles intelligence, but that many critics overlook the changes that already have been made to force better coordination among the CIA, Defense Department, FBI and other government agencies involved in counterterrorism.
"The system today works better than it ever has before," Brennan said, acknowledging that "the status quo on 9/11 was certainly insufficient."
Brennan said he supported the proposal to give the new national counterterrorism center broader authority than that given to his Terrorist Threat Integration Center. The Sept. 11 commission proposed that the new center have the power not just to analyze data but also to plan covert counterterrorist operations for the CIA, FBI and Pentagon, both inside the United States and abroad.
At the same time, he cautioned against "moving precipitously," saying that the commission's reorganization plan "does not, quite honestly . . . provide the detailed type of engineering blueprint that we need in order to undergo that transformation."
Retired Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and now an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, also urged the senators to study the intelligence community carefully before acting.
"Consider the possibility that some of these functions are not well understood yet," Hughes said, "and some of the ideas behind the structure haven't yet been completely formed or understood."
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a critic of the CIA in the past, said Congress would have to proceed deliberately, noting that the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations would diminish the agency's power and authority.
"I think we need to be very, very careful as we approach this not to weaken or perhaps begin the dismantlement of the CIA . . . because the CIA does things for us other than just dealing with counterterrorism."