President Bush signed executive orders and directives yesterday bolstering the authority of the CIA director over the nation's intelligence programs and budgets, signaling a renewed effort by the White House to shape the national security debate roiling Congress and the presidential campaign.
The White House characterized the changes as an interim step toward the naming of a national intelligence director, which must be done by legislation, and the administration signaled that it is prepared to move closer than previously indicated to the far-reaching recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.
In its best-selling report, released last month, the bipartisan panel advocated naming an intelligence director with broad powers to shape budgets and make personnel decisions across the government. Bush had previously endorsed such a position in name but had not indicated how much authority the person would have and disagreed that the director should work alongside the president.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the changes will "improve our ability to find, track and stop terrorists."
But Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the Democratic vice presidential candidate, characterized the moves as an acknowledgment that Bush has "failed to enact the intelligence reform needed to keep our country safe."
"The proposal announced today does not get the job done," Edwards said in a statement. "Expanding the powers of the existing director of central intelligence is a far cry from creating a true national intelligence director with real control over personnel and budgets."
Among other things, the orders released publicly yesterday give the CIA director more direct control over the intelligence budgets of other departments, including defense. The orders give the CIA chief the ability to transfer funds between agencies or to halt spending that is not consistent with national security priorities.
The change is a blow to the Defense Department and a major boost for the embattled CIA, which is currently run by an acting director and has faced intense criticism in recent months for its handling of intelligence related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war. The head of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), proposed legislation earlier this week to dismantle the agency.
Under Bush's interim plans, the acting CIA director, John E. McLaughlin, who succeeded Director George J. Tenet, would have the power to approve or disapprove of items in the budgets of all 15 intelligence agencies, including a vast array of programs overseen by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The Pentagon controls about 80 percent of the nation's estimated $40 billion intelligence budget. Bush has nominated Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) to take the CIA post permanently.
Bush's orders yesterday also created a national counterterrorism center to oversee anti-terrorism efforts at home and abroad, called for devising standards "for secure and reliable forms of identification" for federal workers and contractors, and created a board within the Justice Department to monitor government laws and policies for civil liberties violations.
The orders, which amounted to an administration endorsement of many of the Sept. 11 commission's key recommendations, came on the same day that a leading Senate Republican issued some of the strongest criticism to date of the panel's proposals.
Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the senior Republican in the Senate, said the commission failed to adequately take into account the organization changes and improved coordination between intelligence agencies since the 2001 attacks.
"I don't see how it would be anything but a step backward to approve the 9/11 report," Stevens told reporters. "We need more consideration of the 9/11 report. I would hate to see it rushed to judgment."
He added that there had been "fantastic change" since Sept. 11, 2001, largely because "the walls are down" between agencies.
The leaders of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is spearheading intelligence legislation in the Senate, also issued a statement playing down the importance of Bush's orders. Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking Democratic member Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) said the changes were "important steps forward" but "are only steps and ultimately will not be able to substitute for the legislation we hope to move in a bipartisan fashion" by Oct. 1.
A senior White House official who briefed reporters declined to specify how much further the administration would go in giving a national intelligence director budget and personnel authority, which is likely to be strongly resisted by Rumsfeld and other department heads. Bush will support giving the director "all the power they need," said the official, who cannot be identified under the terms of a conference call with reporters.
In addition to increasing the power of the CIA director, Bush signed orders establishing a counterterrorism center that would encompass the duties of other entities formed since the 2001 attacks, including the CIA-run Terrorist Threat Integration Center. Other orders set guidelines for improved intelligence sharing among agencies.
Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.