The Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee unveiled a radical proposal yesterday to remove most of the nation's major intelligence-gathering operations from the CIA and Pentagon and place them directly under the control of a new national intelligence director.
The plan, announced by Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) and endorsed by eight other committee Republicans, is more extensive than the reorganization proposed last month by the Sept. 11, 2001, commission and would result in the virtual dismantling of the CIA. It also would severely curb the power and influence of the Defense Department, which controls the bulk of the federal classified intelligence budget.
Under the plan, the CIA's three main directorates would be torn from the agency and turned into separate entities reporting to separate directors. The Pentagon would lose control of three of its largest operations as well, including the super-secret National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic signals worldwide.
The proposal came as a shock to Senate Democrats and the White House, which had not been told in advance about the plan's details by Roberts and the other GOP committee members. Congress is holding hearings on how to remodel the nation's intelligence agencies in the wake of shortcomings outlined by the Sept. 11 commission.
Roberts, in an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation," said the Republicans focused on "the national security threats that face this country today" in fashioning the proposal.
"We didn't pay attention to turf or agencies or boxes," Roberts said. "I'm trying to build a consensus around something that's very different and very bold."
The plan ran into several immediate obstacles, including a committee Democrat, Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.). He said on the same CBS broadcast: "It's a mistake to begin with a partisan bill, no matter what is in it."
The White House indicated it would study the proposal, but a senior intelligence official said yesterday the plan "makes no sense" and would cause more problems than it solves.
"Rather than eliminating stovepipes, this will create more of them," said the intelligence official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the political debate. "Rather than bringing intelligence disciplines together, it smashes them apart. . . . This proposal is unworkable and would hamper rather than enhance the nation's intelligence operations."
The plan was welcomed by the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, who has endorsed the changes advocated by the commission, including creation of a national intelligence director.
Rand Beers, the campaign's national security adviser, said in a statement that the proposal "is very similar to the reforms offered by John Kerry but needs to become bipartisan to be fully successful." Beers also accused President Bush of "dragging his feet and resisting any real changes."
The proposal adds an unpredictable element to the tumultuous political debate over how to revamp the nation's intelligence community as Congress works toward voting on legislation before the November elections. The debate, carried out in 22 hearings scheduled during Congress's usual August recess, has revolved primarily around the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, which released a final report last month calling for the naming of a national intelligence director who would control the budgets of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
The Bush administration's proposal would create a national intelligence director but not give the individual direct control over budgets or operations of the agencies. In congressional testimony last week, acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also urged caution.
"If we move unwisely and get it wrong, the penalty would be great," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Roberts's plan, outlined in a paper released yesterday, would create new agencies of the CIA's main directorates: Operations, which collects intelligence and directs covert activities; Intelligence, which analyzes information; and Science and Technology.
At the Pentagon, both the NSA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would be put under the direction of an assistant national intelligence director. The human intelligence program within the Defense Intelligence Agency would also be removed from the Pentagon.
In outlining the proposal, Roberts said, "No one agency, no matter how distinguished its history, is more important than U.S. national security." The paper also said: "We are not abolishing the CIA. We are reordering and renaming its three major elements."
But the senior intelligence official said little would be left at the CIA under the plan. "That's exactly what it would do: demolish the agency," the official said. "This goes way beyond anything reasonable."
Roberts's proposal came a day after the Sept. 11 commission officially closed, although its members have vowed to campaign for intelligence revisions.
Hours before its midnight demise, the panel released two lengthy staff reports containing new details about al Qaeda fundraising and about how the Sept. 11 hijackers obtained U.S. visas and entered the country on numerous occasions.
The FBI knew about suspected al Qaeda fundraisers before the attacks but did not adequately address them, one report said. It added: "Gaps appear to remain in the intelligence community's understanding of the issue."
The second report said hijackers lied on their visa applications, overstayed U.S. visas or falsified their passports. It found that ringleader Mohamed Atta should have been stopped for extra scrutiny in July 2001, the last time he reentered the United States.
In reference to "the myth that the hijackers' entry into the United States was 'clean and legal,' " the report said: "It was not."