President Bush yesterday proposed giving a new national intelligence director broad powers to plan intelligence agencies' spending priorities and clandestine activities, making a concession to lawmakers moving to implement the more sweeping proposals of the Sept. 11 commission.
The legislation Bush proposed would give the director control over more than two-thirds of the overall intelligence budget, which is estimated at $40 billion a year for the nation's 15 intelligence agencies. The White House said the proposed changes would help solve the lack of coordination among agencies blamed for intelligence failures in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"We believe that there ought to be a national intelligence director who has full budgetary authority," Bush said as he sat down for a brief meeting at the White House with congressional leaders. He said he wanted "to get a bill to my desk as quickly as possible."
In several aspects, Bush's proposal still stops short of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The commission concluded that the intelligence director should be in the executive office of the president and needed authority over the full budget to assure deployment resources to meet rapidly shifting threats and demands.
Bush's plan would not place the intelligence chief in the office of the president, and would give the chief full authority over only the 70 percent of the intelligence budget that is not related solely to military operations. The White House would leave intelligence gathering organizations such as the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office under the Pentagon's authority.
The White House would limit the director's budgetary control to the National Foreign Intelligence Program -- the official name for all foreign intelligence not related to tactical military operations. The White House said its plan would avoid "the disruption of the war effort that a more far-reaching restructuring could create."
"Full budget authority" is a technical term meaning the new director would have the power to decide how funds should be apportioned among agencies, including those at the Pentagon, that carry out foreign intelligence. The director's choices would require the approval of the president and Congress. The director could also propose a shifting, or "reprogramming," of funds between these agencies to adjust to changing needs.
The administration had not explicitly rejected giving the intelligence director authority over the budget, but officials were dismissive of the notion on Aug. 2, when Bush first outlined his response to the recommendations of the commission that probed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said then that the intelligence director should "be able to make recommendations in the budget process, but I do not think that this person should replace the budget director for the United States." Since then, however, the administration has come under strong pressure from members of the 9/11 commission, lawmakers and others to give the director broad authority.
The president's proposed legislation -- more comprehensive than what he outlined a month ago -- came as the debate over intelligence reform intensified on Capitol Hill. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have introduced legislation that would implement the proposals of the commission, and lawmakers said they expect some version of the legislation to be approved before the election, though the most far-reaching elements could wait until next year.
The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry dismissed Bush's latest proposal as insufficient. "If George W. Bush were serious about intelligence reform, he'd stop taking half-measures and wholeheartedly endorse the 9/11 Commission recommendations and work for their immediate passage by Congress," Kerry national security adviser Rand Beers said in a statement.
Bush's plan calls for a national intelligence director, confirmed by the Senate, who would serve as the president's "principal adviser" on intelligence matters "relating to the national security." The director would set priorities for intelligence gathering and analysis, and resolve conflicts among intelligence agencies. The White House said the director would not be in the Cabinet.
The White House outlined a directorship that would replace the director of central intelligence as head of the intelligence community, coordinating activities of the CIA, the Pentagon, the FBI and Homeland Security. The director would oversee the National Counterterrorism Center, created by Bush last month to improve coordination of intelligence, and other centers, such as one to counter weapons of mass destruction. The plan also creates a Cabinet-level Joint Intelligence Community Council to set requirements for the intelligence community and evaluate its performance.
At a meeting Tuesday of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), withdrew the panel's proposal that the new intelligence chief be part of the executive office of the president because of opposition from the White House and Congress. Hamilton also noted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that giving the intelligence director more authority over the budget of military intelligence functions would be more difficult than he had realized.
At a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee meeting yesterday, acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin recommended making the funds controlled by the new national intelligence director a separate appropriation and declassifying the figure. Intelligence spending remains shrouded in secrecy in part because much of it is buried within the Pentagon budget.
Hamilton and the 9/11 commission chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), said at the hearing that they hoped some action would be taken on a "framework" for reorganization during the current legislative session.
Another commission member at the hearing, former Navy secretary John F. Lehman (R), said he hoped that Congress would take steps to improve oversight of the intelligence agencies. Without that, intelligence reform "would be like one hand clapping," Lehman said.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a member of the intelligence panel, asked whether the complex reform could be carried out in two stages, the first in the coming months and the rest by the new Congress. Hamilton answered that he would be "surprised if it all was done in one sweep."