New CIA chief needed urgently, senators say

Intelligence panel leaders note threat of terrorism

July 12, 2004|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The leaders of the Senate intelligence committee urged President Bush yesterday to quickly name a new CIA director because of the risk of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

"There are a number of people who have an extraordinary background that the president could send up and that we could get confirmed," Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the committee's top Democrat, told Fox News Sunday that "during such a dangerous period for the United States" it would be "unacceptable" to leave the job vacant until after the election.

Members of Congress have been told in intelligence briefings that there is a "very plausible threat" of a terrorist attack in the United States before the Nov. 2 election, Roberts told CBS' Face the Nation.

The senators' statements seemed to negate predictions that the confirmation of a CIA director would be contentious, both because of the politics of the presidential election and because of the fallout from their committee's report, released Friday, criticizing failures in the agency's ability to gather and interpret intelligence information.

The CIA's analysis, which incorrectly concluded that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was trying to build a nuclear bomb, was a large part of the Bush administration's justification for war.

The report blamed the intelligence failures in part on the culture at the CIA, led for the past seven years by George J. Tenet. Tenet, who announced in June that he would retire for personal reasons, officially left the agency yesterday and was replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Director John McLaughlin.

Both senators complimented McLaughlin's skills, but stressed that it would be too much of a risk not to have a permanent CIA director in place during such tumultuous times.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat on the panel, urged the Bush administration to "go slow" and not nominate a successor until Congress and the president have time to reform the structure of the intelligence community.

Among suggested changes is the creation of a position - director of national intelligence - to oversee the CIA and the 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies.

"There are powerful interests ... in this government that don't want to change the structure," Feinstein said on ABC's This Week. "If you get a new director that aligns himself with those powerful interests, we will never have major reform."

The Bush administration is more likely to keep the current structure but give the director of central intelligence, who heads the CIA, greater authority over the other agencies' budgets, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, quoting a senior GOP strategist.

Despite the consensus between Rockefeller and Roberts on the need to quickly put a permanent director in place, there were disagreements about the suitability of some candidates.

Rockefeller said Rep. Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, does not meet his criteria. Rockefeller said that to avoid a contentious confirmation process, a candidate should not have a "political background."

The one name given the nod by Roberts and Rockefeller was Richard L. Armitage, deputy secretary of state.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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