Several senior Pentagon officials warned yesterday against allowing the proposed creation of a powerful national intelligence director to obstruct the flow of timely information to troops in the field.
Testifying before a House committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz cautioned that establishing the new intelligence post -- as well as other measures recommended by the Sept. 11 commission -- would require further study to ensure future military operations are not handicapped.
The importance of this issue to military commanders was driven home by Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
"I want to make sure . . . that every piece of intelligence that's available is instantly available to my guy on the ground wherever he is, or my guy in the air or out in a boat," said Brown, appearing with Wolfowitz. "I would not want any impediments."
But two leaders of the commission stressed that the recommended changes in U.S. intelligence could be instituted in ways that would not block critical tactical information from reaching the battlefield.
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton testified that the proposed reforms were meant to ensure greater cooperation among the government's 15 intelligence agencies, not interfere with military operations. The Pentagon's intelligence needs, they said, would be protected by the appointment of a top Pentagon official as a deputy to the new intelligence director and by keeping "tactical intelligence" activities in military agencies.
"It is unimaginable to us that the national intelligence director would not give protection of our forces deployed in the field a very high -- if not highest -- priority," Hamilton said.
The unusual August hearing by the House Armed Services Committee reflected the urgency that lawmakers have attached to considering the commission's recommendations.
Before the session, Democrats met behind closed doors with Kean and Hamilton. House Democratic leaders later released a letter urging President Bush to summon both chambers back to Washington during the current congressional recess to act on the recommendations.
"There is no reason why some of the recommendations could not be put in place by Sept. 11 and all of them by the time Congress adjourns in October," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and three other Democratic leaders said in the letter. "That schedule is made more difficult, however, if the August recess is not interrupted."
Without a formal session, legislation cannot be introduced or formally worked on by committees, making the current hearings little more than conversations, they said.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry recently made a similar proposal for a special recess session to consider the proposals. Bush rejected it, saying Congress could act in September.
Yesterday's hearing marked the first opportunity for the Pentagon's civilian and military leadership to present views on the commission's recommendations. Wolfowitz, Brown and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said their caution should not be interpreted as opposition to the proposed changes. Their concern, they said, is to avoid major shifts that might do more harm than good to military operations.
"It's important to work out the details thoughtfully and carefully," Wolfowitz said. "Done right, it will actually, I think, make more information available to the war fighter because it will break down some of the stovepipes; it will produce, hopefully, more of a common culture.
"Done wrong," he said, "it will sort of hoard everything into Washington, and somebody will have to decide at a high level who gets to look at it. And that would be a mistake."
Brown made clear that his reservations extended to the commission's recommendation that the CIA no longer direct covert paramilitary operations and that, instead, the Special Operations Command assume responsibility for such activities.
The commission concluded that the Special Operations Command is best qualified to direct such operations and that military professionals should be running operations in which weapons greater than side arms are needed.
But Brown called the issue of CIA involvement very complex and said the agency might still have a role in paramilitary actions.
"I just think we need more study on it," he said.
The Pentagon's appeal for careful consideration left some committee members suspecting an attempt to undercut the recommendations.
"I'd like to ask in plain English, because I've listened now for several hours today, whether the Pentagon is going to put its weight behind the recommendations of the 9/11 commission," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). "Because I am very worried we're hearing a lot of sweet talkin', slow walkin' here."
Wolfowitz denied that the Pentagon is playing an obstructionist role. He said that the commission "correctly identified important areas where we can do a lot better," and he offered assurances that Pentagon lawyers are working with others in the administration on the recommendations.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.