Bush backs authority for head of intelligence

National director would have power over spy agencies' budgets, hiring

Pentagon `fully supports the president's plan'

Congressional Democrats divided over the White House blueprint

September 09, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Shifting ground in the face of growing bipartisan pressure, President Bush endorsed yesterday giving greater budget and hiring power to a national intelligence director, cutting into the Pentagon's longtime control over many of the nation's spy agencies.

Bush's new plan, unveiled at a meeting with congressional leaders of both parties, put the president squarely behind major intelligence reforms as momentum built on Capitol Hill for sweeping changes to correct the failures of leadership and coordination uncovered by two recent investigations.

The Bush plan was announced days before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, in an occasion that will likely serve as a reminder of the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to expose the plot that killed some 3,000 Americans.

"We believe that there ought to be a national intelligence director who has full budgetary authority," Bush said, before meeting with lawmakers at the White House. "We'll talk to members of Congress about how to implement that."

Previously, Bush had backed the appointment of a national intelligence director who would have overall charge of the 15-agency U.S. intelligence community, but he'd left vague the powers that would go with the new post. Pentagon officials have pressed to limit changes that would weaken their control over intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Yesterday, a Pentagon spokesman said: "The Department of Defense fully supports the president's plan. It would be inappropriate, however, to speculate on any changes in organization or authority at this time."

Currently, the director of central intelligence, while nominally in charge of the nation's entire intelligence apparatus, in reality has full control only over the CIA. The Pentagon now controls about 80 percent of the intelligence community's spending.

The momentum for major changes has been spurred by the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks and a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that harshly criticized the intelligence community's prewar assessment that Iraq possessed banned weapons.

The Bush blueprint

By making his own detailed proposal, Bush ensured that the White House will have a major say as reforms move rapidly ahead on Capitol Hill and that he probably will not have to sign or veto legislation crafted largely by Congress.

The White House said the national director would "have authority over the budget and collection activities" of intelligence agencies and would "coordinate the foreign and domestic activities of the intelligence community."

The director would also "have a role" in picking intelligence agency heads, who are appointed by the president, and have to concur in the hiring of key intelligence officials by department chiefs such as the secretary of defense. Congressional proposals would give the intelligence director the power to hire and fire the officials with the department head's approval.

Three major, high-technology agencies, including the eavesdropping National Security Agency at Fort Meade, would continue to be part of the Pentagon to avoid "the disruption of the war effort that a more far-reaching restructuring could create," according to the White House statement.

But according to the statement, their budgets, and those of other intelligence offices in the military services, the Treasury and State departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would fall under the national intelligence director, giving the director substantial sway over their activities.

The final say before going to the president for approval would come from the Office of Management and Budget, which puts together all budgets for the executive branch, a White House official said.

The role of the OMB left some congressional officials skeptical that Bush was really throwing his weight behind major intelligence reforms. But his meeting with the congressional leaders and his announcement served to divide Democrats.

The Kerry campaign's national security adviser, Rand Beers, said in a statement: "If George W. Bush were serious about intelligence reform, he'd stop taking half-measures and wholeheartedly endorse the 9/11 Commission recommendations and work for their immediate passage by Congress."

But some congressional Democrats praised Bush's move as an effort to move further in the direction of reform.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, senior Democrat on one of the congressional panels weighing major reforms, said Bush's plan would let the national director oversee "well over half" the intelligence budget and called it "a very significant step." Lieberman has co-authored reform legislation with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

After attending yesterday's White House meeting, Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, called it "a welcome change from the normally divisive and partisan Washington atmosphere."

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