WASHINGTON - Ever since the CIA was created in 1947 to spy on America's Cold War enemies, 38 high-profile government committees, commissions and conclaves have urged deep reforms of the nation's chief intelligence agency.
Until now, no one has recommended abolishing the CIA and reassigning all its spies, analysts, scientists and other experts - as well as staff from 14 lesser-known intelligence agencies - to a new National Intelligence Service. Gone would be the fabled CIA logo, lore and legend.
No employees at the CIA or the other agencies would lose their jobs if the proposal becomes law. But the plan by Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who heads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to radically restructure America's intelligence community and to dismantle the CIA has enraged current and former senior CIA officials.
Yesterday, they issued angry press releases, denounced the plan on television and called reporters to argue that Roberts' proposal would weaken America, damage national security and lead to disaster. George J. Tenet, who resigned last month after seven years as CIA director, led the charge.
"Sen. Roberts' proposal is yet another episode in the mad rush to rearrange wiring diagrams in an attempt to be seen as doing something," Tenet said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. "It is time for someone to say, `Stop!' ... It is time for someone to slam the brakes on before the politics of the moment drives the security of the American people off a cliff."
The Senate intelligence committee's top Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said Roberts' proposal departs significantly from the 9/11 commission's blueprint, eliminating the CIA while it is embroiled in the war on terror.
"Disbanding and scattering the Central Intelligence Agency at such a crucial time would be a severe mistake," Rockefeller said.
John E. McLaughlin, the CIA's acting director, urged the agency's 17,000 staffers to remain calm. "Ideas will come and go," he said in a statement faxed to reporters. "Some will stick; many will be winnowed out. In that regard, I honestly do not think any of this will lead to the breakup of the CIA."
Dismantling the CIA "would, in my judgment, be a step backward," he said.
The White House was less critical, at least in public, as aides studied the proposal. Aides to the Democratic nominee for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said Roberts' proposal was similar to one Kerry already had embraced but needed further study and bipartisan support.
President Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, said he would "take a look at [Roberts' proposal] and determine whether or not it works."
Bush has proposed appointing a national intelligence director, although with far less authority than the position would have under Roberts' proposal.
Reform is needed for better coordination of intelligence collection and analysis, Bush said. "And so we're looking at all options, including the budget option, all aimed at making sure that me and future presidents have got the best information possible."
Roberts announced his plan Sunday in a news release and during an interview on CBS' Face the Nation, and issued it formally yesterday as a 139-page bill called the "9/11 National Security Protection Act."
In a briefing for reporters, he warned that radical reforms are required, insisting that "the intelligence community simply can't do this on their own."
"Thirty-eight attempts have failed," he said. "We cannot afford to fail this time around."
Roberts said he became convinced that urgent change was needed after studying reports by a congressional panel and the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, his committee's critique of flawed U.S. intelligence about Iraq's unconventional weapons, and eight years of Senate intelligence committee hearings.
"If this proposal seems radical to some ... my response would be, `What should we do?'" Roberts said. "Do you rearrange the deck chairs, or do you do real reform?"
Roberts sought to mollify critics and soothe ruffled political egos by insisting that he assumed his proposal would undergo changes during congressional hearings and would only pass if it won bipartisan support. He said he regretted that he had not shared the bill with the White House or with most Democrats on the committee before announcing his proposal.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.