A far-reaching proposal by Senate Republicans to dismantle the CIA and remove key intelligence agencies from the Pentagon ran into heavy political opposition yesterday, not only from key members of Congress but also from longtime former CIA director George J. Tenet.
President Bush also responded coolly to the proposal by Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) and seven other GOP members of the Senate intelligence committee. Bush said that "we're looking at all options" but cautioned he would oppose any proposal that would create a new layer of bureaucracy in the president's national security team.
Bush did indicate that he would consider giving a new national intelligence director authority over the intelligence budget, which Roberts and the Sept. 11, 2001, commission have advocated.
"We'll take a look at it, determine, you know, whether or not it works or not," Bush told reporters in Crawford, Tex. "But there's going to be a lot of other ideas, too, as this debate goes forward."
The reaction of Tenet, who stepped down as CIA director in July, was much more critical. He released a statement saying Roberts's proposal would "gut the CIA" and reflects "a dangerous misunderstanding of the business of intelligence."
"Senator Roberts' proposal is yet another episode in the mad rush to rearrange wiring diagrams in an attempt to be seen as doing something," Tenet said. "It is time for someone to slam the brakes on before the politics of the moment drives the security of the American people off a cliff."
The skeptical reactions were based not only on the substance of the plan -- which calls for more sweeping changes than any other proposal for intelligence reform this year -- but also on anger over the way it was unveiled. Roberts disclosed the proposal during a television appearance on Sunday, and Democrats and some Republicans complained yesterday that they were not warned. Roberts released the text of the 139-page bill yesterday.
The generally negative reception contrasted sharply with the response to the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, whose best-selling report last month prompted almost immediate vows of reform from Bush and lawmakers in both parties.
The only Republican on the Senate intelligence committee who has not embraced Roberts's plan is Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee. His office issued a statement yesterday saying Warner "has not been briefed on this proposal, but would have concerns about any plan that would transfer critical, well-functioning intelligence assets away from the Department of Defense during wartime."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), complained in a statement that "Senator Roberts did not afford me or any Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee an opportunity to work with him in drafting the proposal." He also said the plan "departs significantly from the Sept. 11 Commission's blueprint for reform."
"Having not seen the details of the Roberts proposal, my reaction is that disbanding and scattering the Central Intelligence Agency at such a crucial time would be a severe mistake," the statement said.
Roberts seemed surprised by the fervor of the criticism, and vigorously defended his bill in an hour-long session with reporters in his Senate office. Although he said he is open to modifying the details, he maintained that his plan offers the best way to implement the goals of the Sept. 11 commission. The panel offered 41 recommendations for reform in its report, including naming a national intelligence director who would work out of the White House.
Under his plan, Roberts said, the CIA would cease to exist by name, but every CIA employee would continue working in his or her current capacity. "We are not terminating the CIA -- we are making it more powerful," he said.
Roberts also said that by creating a highly influential national intelligence director (NID) with budgetary and personnel authority over virtually all the government's intelligence operations, his bill would make efforts in that area more coordinated and focused.
Under the proposal, the CIA's three major components -- operations, analysis and technology -- would report to different assistants to the NID. These three assistants, plus a fourth dealing with military intelligence, would oversee agencies now scattered throughout the federal bureaucracy.
The assistant director for intelligence collection, for example, would oversee the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the FBI's counterterrorism and counterintelligence divisions, in addition to the CIA's operations arm. The bill would leave with the Pentagon budget authority for some battlefield intelligence programs.
Roberts's bill amounts to a selection of elements from various proposals, including others by Senate and House members and the Sept. 11 commission, according to a senior Senate staff member who is familiar with the measure. Responding to criticism that the measure could jeopardize intelligence by breaking apart the CIA, the staff member said, "Nothing working now will be changed unless the NID thinks it should. There will be no reason to move people."
Roberts said he moved quickly, without consulting committee Democrats during the August recess, because he believes legislation will progress rapidly when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day and his panel must "lay down a marker" now. He said some GOP colleagues told him, " 'If we wait, we'll end up on the sidelines.' We don't have weeks left -- we have days."
To merely write the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations into a proposed bill would be "political posturing," Roberts said, adding that he believes his bill best represents the commission's overall intent.
"If this proposal seems radical to some," Roberts said, " . . . my response would be, what should we do?" There have been 38 proposals for revamping the nation's intelligence operations since 1949, he said, and most went nowhere. "We cannot afford to fail this time," he said.
Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin tried to reassure his employees by saying he doubts that the agency would be broken apart as part of an intelligence reorganization. "I would certainly speak out against such a move, which would, in my judgment, be a step backward," he said.
Staff writers Helen Dewar, Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.