Antiterror proposals divide, confuse

Lawmakers debate reforms for intelligence community suggested by 9/11 panel

August 16, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Nearly six years ago, responding to a rising sense of peril from a well-funded, well-trained terrorist group called al-Qaida, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, issued a blunt order to America's 15 intelligence agencies.

"We are at war," Tenet wrote. "I want no resources or people spared."

His message had all the impact of a memo requesting better staplers. According to the report of the Sept. 11 commission, the head of the National Security Agency thought the letter was meant for the CIA; Tenet's own agency assumed it applied to everyone else.

As congressional leaders and the White House grapple with the commission's recommendations, the response to Tenet's 1998 order has come to be seen as evidence of an intelligence community desperately in need of more attentive leadership and tighter cooperation.

Yet the possible solutions have left lawmakers divided and in some cases confused. At issue, in particular, are the commission's two most far-reaching ideas, which it said should be adopted without delay: that a counterterrorism center be created along with a post of national intelligence director.

Those ideas have been complicated by three different agendas - those of the White House, Congress and commission members - and by thorny details that could prove problematic.

If approved as recommended, a new National Counterterrorism Center would be intended to force cooperation among the intelligence agencies. And the new national intelligence director would take charge of the entire U.S. intelligence community.

Together, the two moves would mark the biggest upheaval in intelligence, analysts say, since the CIA was established in 1947 and given the primary role among U.S. intelligence agencies. The chairman of the 9/11 panel, Thomas H. Kean, referred to it as a "total and complete transformation."

Concerns have been raised, though, about how such a transformation might affect the agencies' autonomy and lines of authority, as well as Americans' civil liberties. Should those concerns block serious change, the national intelligence director post and the counterterrorism center could become little more than new boxes on an already-complicated bureaucratic flow chart.

"The track record on these kinds of reforms is mixed," said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor and Brookings Institution fellow who specializes in government reform.

"With enough momentum and with the right [personnel] choices early on, this could become something very significant," Light said. "But there are certainly enough examples of [reform initiatives] that went nowhere. They have a tendency to come and go."

Under the panel's recommendation, the National Counterterrorism Center would house the counterterrorism units of the CIA, FBI and others under one roof. Agents and analysts assigned to the center would report more to the center's director than to their own agencies' directors.

The center would not merely receive and analyze data; its director would be empowered to order CIA agents or FBI personnel to further investigate possible terrorism plots.

As envisioned by the 9/11 panel, the national intelligence director would oversee the center and head the intelligence agencies from an office in the White House. The director could submit budgets on their behalf to the president, fire the directors and move money around among the agencies as needed.

The shift would represent a sea change for the intelligence community, which for half a century has been technically organized under the CIA director's authority. In practice, though, the Pentagon's intelligence agencies, such as the intelligence units of the Army, Navy and Air Force, have enjoyed almost unbridled autonomy and budgetary independence.

It also remains unclear what authorities a CIA director would retain if the new position of a national intelligence director is established.

The CIA, FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have been cool to the idea, which would require them to lose most of their control over their terror-fighting units.

Nor has Bush fully embraced the ideas. He has said he backs the creation of a national intelligence director. But the president has said he wants the post to exist outside the White House and the Cabinet and without budgetary authority. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, has said the matter of budgetary authority could be open for discussion.

`Dual hatting'

Congress has sounded its own concerns. They center largely on whether the intelligence director would be too powerful - or not powerful enough.

In the dozen hearings held on intelligence reform, lawmakers have addressed an issue dubbed "dual hatting." Under the commission's plan, the head of the FBI's intelligence unit, for example, would report to the national intelligence director, but at the same time would still answer to the FBI director.

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