President Bush and his senior aides are studying ways to give a new national intelligence director "effective authority" over the U.S. intelligence community, including budgetary authority, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.
Asked whether the president would give budgetary and hiring-and-firing authority to the holder of the new position, Rice told NBC's "Meet the Press," "The only thing that he's taken off the table [is] that this person shouldn't be in the White House and shouldn't be part of the Cabinet."
Saying the national intelligence director "needs to have more effective authority than the director of central intelligence has," Rice said, "we're discussing the mechanisms by which that might be done."
Last week, during the initial House and Senate hearings on changes to intelligence gathering recommended by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Republicans and Democrats criticized Bush's desire to limit the powers of the new intelligence director.
They pointed to the Sept. 11 commission report, to studies by outside commissions and to the joint House-Senate intelligence committee's investigation in 2002, all of which recommended that any new director of the 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community have budgetary authority and control of top personnel in those agencies. Anything less would be "a shell game," as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, put it at a hearing last week.
During his announcement last Monday on establishing a national intelligence director, Bush said that individual would "oversee and coordinate the foreign and domestic activities of the intelligence" community. One of Bush's top aides later told reporters at a session in which they agreed not to identify him by name that the new director would not have control of budgets, only "tremendous clout in developing a budget."
Upcoming hearings on intelligence community changes may focus on budgetary authority, particularly the one before the House Armed Services Committee next Monday, at which top Defense Department officials are scheduled to testify for the first time on the Sept. 11 commission's proposals. In the past, Pentagon officials, who receive more than 80 percent of the $40 billion intelligence budget, have opposed giving full budgetary authority to the director of central intelligence.
Rice yesterday seemed to join those who called last week for slow deliberations in revising the intelligence community's activities, which have been substantially changed since the 2001 attacks.
"You obviously want to do this in a way that is deliberative and sound because these are major reforms," she said. "You have a war ongoing."
The most recent intelligence on threats by the al Qaeda terrorist network included mention of the U.S. Capitol and members of Congress, a senior White House official said yesterday for the first time.
White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," answered "yes" when asked whether there had been recent threats to the Capitol and the legislators. "In the past and as part of this continuing threat stream, and so we shared that with them," she said.
Targets identified specifically by the administration in raising the threat level to orange last week had been financial institutions in Washington, New York and New Jersey, specifically the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings in Washington, the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Center in New York and Prudential Financial in Newark.
Townsend said the new intelligence about other targets, such as the Capitol, was not as detailed as those targets mentioned by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in his original announcement last week.
The decision by Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer to close part of First Street NE and create 14 checkpoints on Capitol Hill in response to the renewed threat was the latest of several aggressive steps he has taken in recent months to heighten security in the area. The latest action created an uproar among D.C. officials.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has said that he was thoroughly briefed by the FBI and heard nothing in the briefing that would justify checkpoints and street closures on Capitol Hill.
A senior intelligence official pointed out yesterday that when the recently discovered al Qaeda surveillance activities were taking place in 2000 and 2001, Osama bin Laden's network was far advanced in its plans to attack the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Capitol, which apparently was to be struck by the airliner whose passengers and crew forced it to crash in Pennsylvania.
Townsend said she expected additional information to emerge over the next few days from interrogations underway in Pakistan and Britain as more al Qaeda terrorists are seized. She particularly noted the capture in the United Arab Emirates of a senior al Qaeda figure, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who was flown to Lahore, Pakistan, for questioning.
Townsend described him as "very important, particularly for Pakistan," during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." "He's wanted in connection with the two assassination attempts on [Pakistani] President Musharraf," she said, and was "also involved in the training camps in Afghanistan."
Townsend said announcing the precise targets and raising the alert level in Washington and New York may have had an impact on the terrorists' plot. "I certainly think that by our actions now that we have disrupted it," she said on Fox. "The question is, 'Have we disrupted all of it or part of it?' "
In 1997, the original plot to blow up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was interrupted when senior al Qaeda operatives in Nairobi were arrested by that country's police, aided by CIA operatives. Nevertheless, because none of those seized disclosed the plot, bin Laden sent new operatives to Kenya, and the attacks took place a year later.
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.