Key 9/11 panel proposal scrutinized

Some in the Senate worry national intelligence chief would lack independence

July 31, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The key recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission - a new position of national intelligence director - received a cautious reception from a Senate panel yesterday as Congress began the job of reshaping the nation's intelligence agencies.

Testifying before the Governmental Affairs committee, commission leaders Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton urged speedy action and urged the senators to support the intelligence director proposal, which they said would create a "quarterback" responsible for federal counterterrorism efforts.

The commission proposed that all 15 federal intelligence agencies report to such a director, who would have some budgetary authority and would be a member of the executive office of the president.

"There is a moment here," Kean said. "It's a moment when, hopefully, people can come together because we haven't got a lot of time. ... It is an emergency, and there is an enemy out there that is planning, as we meet here, to attack us."

The commissioners' appearance was the first of more than a dozen hearings before Senate and House committees during the next month, when Congress is usually on summer break, to review the commission's recommendations, contained in a scathing report released last week on pre-9/11 government failures.

Commission members, in a related development, announced they will launch a nationwide campaign next week to promote their proposals, though the senators yesterday focused largely on the issue of a national intelligence director.

While some senators expressed support for the idea, others from both parties questioned whether the position would be sufficiently independent of the president or would create a bureaucracy in which intelligence agencies are forced to answer to multiple bosses.

The White House also declined to offer immediate support for the director idea yesterday or embrace any of the other major recommendations, which include creation of a national counterterrorism center.

White House officials portrayed the commission's recommendations as an endorsement of several reforms they say President Bush has implemented.

In a conference call with reporters, a senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the task force Bush assembled to evaluate the commission's proposals was working on even "broader" reforms, which the official would not disclose.

The official, though, did hint that the intelligence director idea might not make it onto the list in its current form.

"We have to be careful to protect intelligence agencies from any undue influence," the official said. "We want to ensure that the intelligence operators and analysts maintain their autonomy. And I think that's got to be a key consideration when you look at the issue."

The idea did receive support from committee chairwoman Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, but Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, expressed concern about possibly limited independence. He questioned whether an intelligence director who is a member of the president's executive office - though not a Cabinet secretary - would be shielded from political influence.

"I believe a top priority of reform must be greater independence and objectivity of intelligence analysis," Levin said.

"How does placing your director in the White House, even closer than the current CIA director, do anything other than make this problem even more difficult?" Levin asked.

Hamilton and Kean said they believe the position would be insulated from undue White House influence because the nominee for the post would be subject to Senate confirmation and would be required to appear before Congress if called. They said the post would be akin to the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said a 10-year term for the director might provide sufficient insulation. Kean said the commission briefly discussed that possibility, but did not reach a conclusion.

Other senators questioned how the heads of counterterrorism at the various intelligence agencies such as the FBI and CIA would report to both a new intelligence chief and their own directors - who in turn also have bosses. The FBI director, for example, answers to the attorney general.

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