WASHINGTON - The United States' top military and intelligence officials warned senators yesterday against a rapid restructuring of spy agencies during a hearing that also exposed fault lines within the Bush administration over whether the Pentagon should yield clout to a new intelligence director.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned lawmakers that sweeping reforms could disrupt U.S. operations as the country continues to fight insurgents in Iraq and pursue terrorist cells in Afghanistan and other countries.
"We need to remember that we are considering these important matters ... while we are waging a war," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his first extensive remarks on the subject since President Bush endorsed the idea earlier this month of creating a new post of intelligence director. "If we move unwisely and get it wrong," Rumsfeld said, "the penalty would be great."
The CIA's acting director, John McLaughlin, echoed Rumsfeld's comments and challenged statements by members of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks that the reforms recommended last month should be enacted without delay.
"The commission says that the country cannot be patient," McLaughlin said. "But to quote a saying I learned during my Army years: If you want it bad, you will get it bad."
Their remarks, combined with similar statements of caution from Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, represent an effort by the White House and key congressional allies to slow down a process expected to produce the most sweeping changes to the intelligence community in half a century.
More than a dozen congressional committees have convened hearings during the August recess to consider proposed reforms, with congressional leaders calling for possible votes on intelligence reform legislation this fall.
Many of the proposals would weaken the Pentagon's power over the U.S. intelligence community. Nine of the 15 U.S. spy agencies are part of the Department of Defense, which controls more than 80 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget. Yesterday's hearing provided a glimpse of the differences among senior officials in the Bush administration - and key Republicans in Congress - over the wisdom of those reforms.
Rumsfeld raised several arguments against giving the CIA director or a new intelligence czar exclusive authority over the budgets of the intelligence agencies and decisions on hiring and firing senior personnel.
Rumsfeld warned against any change that would weaken the link between military commanders and intelligence assets such as spy satellites and listening posts. Many of the problems that plague the intelligence community can be solved apart from budget questions, Rumsfeld said. He said CIA directors already provide substantial input on intelligence budgets and hiring.
"The director of central intelligence today has very broad, extensive authorities," Rumsfeld said. "They may be executed in varying ways ... over time, but in fact, in writing, there's tremendous authority."
McLaughlin, a CIA veteran who has served as acting chief of the agency since the resignation of George J. Tenet last month, acknowledged that CIA directors do have significant input, but little practical control over the agencies they are supposed to coordinate.
"We have the authority to set the policies, but it's difficult to enforce them," McLaughlin said. Asked whether the power to allocate money was necessary to make reforms meaningful, McLaughlin replied, "If you want my personal view, I would say yes."
Although he has backed the idea of creating an intelligence czar, Bush has not endorsed the Sept. 11 commission's recommendation that the job be located inside the White House or that the occupant of the position have budget control.
The proposal to create a national intelligence director also divides key Republicans. Warner, whose committee stands to lose clout over billions of dollars in intelligence spending, has expressed little enthusiasm for the idea.
Yesterday, Warner instead endorsed the idea of elevating the CIA director and giving the position greater say in spending.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.