WASHINGTON - President Bush's plans to reform the nation's espionage community were criticized as inadequate yesterday by lawmakers and members of the Sept. 11 commission, setting the stage for a struggle between the White House and Congress over how much power to grant a proposed intelligence czar and counterterrorism center.
The White House proposals were dissected during rare August hearings held by committees in both houses of Congress. Much of the criticism came from Democrats who are pushing for a more aggressive restructuring of the intelligence community.
But Republicans also expressed concern that the Bush administration has embraced half-measures - particularly by endorsing the idea of creating a national intelligence director to "coordinate" the activities of the nation's spy agencies but not giving the holder of the job authority over those agencies' budgets or the hiring and firing of senior personnel.
"If you don't have the authority to pick the people, isn't a national director just a shell game and a shell operation?" said GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in remarks that were echoed by a key Republican on the Sept. 11 commission.
Creating the new position "makes no sense at all unless it has the power to break up bureaucratic layers," said commission member John F. Lehman, who served as Navy secretary during the Reagan administration and is a rumored candidate for CIA director in the Bush administration.
"This national intelligence director has to have hiring and firing power," Lehman said during testimony before the House Government Reform Committee. "He has to have not just budget coordination power but budget and appropriations and reprogramming power."
Without those authorities, Lehman said, the office "will become just another [bureaucratic] layer."
In a hearing held by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the reform envisioned by the White House "would create a kind of Potemkin national intelligence director - you know, where you see the facade but there's not real authority behind it."
The twin hearings came one day after Bush described his vision for restructuring the nation's intelligence community, an undertaking that has been vaulted to the front of the Washington agenda by a combination of presidential politics and the impact of the Sept. 11 commission's final report.
The creation of a new post of intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center are the bipartisan commission's two main recommendations. Both ideas are designed to foster better coordination and information-sharing among the CIA, the FBI and the 13 other agencies, mostly under the purview of the Defense Department, that make up the nation's intelligence apparatus.
Although the CIA director is supposed to oversee the activities of all 15 agencies, experts agree that the position lacks the clout to be effective in that role, largely because the Defense Department controls 80 percent of the overall intelligence budget.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has endorsed all of the commission's recommendations and has criticized Bush for being slow to make needed changes. But there is growing concern among national security officials about the rush to enact reforms.
Appearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, a panel of high-ranking intelligence officials urged Congress to proceed carefully as it overhauls a system that has seen only modest modifications since the 1947 National Security Act created the CIA and the National Security Council.
"Are the recommendations of 9/11 workable, are they doable in totality? I don't think they are," said John Brennan, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which was set up last year as a clearinghouse of data on terrorism gathered by the CIA, the FBI and other agencies. "I don't think we would do a service to this nation if we took these as they're stated and ran with them with haste."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.