Flip-flopping isn't so bad

September 10, 2004

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, President Bush didn't exactly flip-flop when he announced his support Wednesday for creating a national intelligence director with broad budget authority.

It's more like he was leaning toward creating a weaker post that would only be able to "coordinate" the activities of the nation's 15 major intelligence agencies but now has been swayed sharply in the other direction by political pressure. Kind of bending in the wind.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. In fact, on the vital subject of how the nation's intelligence structure should be redesigned so as not to miss the warning signs of terrorist attacks, as it did before Sept. 11, 2001, all involved in the debate should be open to persuasion.

No one, not even the commission that devoted such time and effort to sifting through the cinders of the attacks and produced such thoughtful recommendations for how to avoid a similar occurrence, can be assumed to have all the right answers.

Democrats - including presidential challenger John Kerry - who contend that the 9/11 commission's 41 recommendations should be immediately adopted as offered are taking a simplistic approach that smacks of shallow sloganeering.

There's not even anything magic about completing legislative action on those recommendations before Congress adjourns next month for the election.

What's required is old-fashioned, bipartisan, legislative craftsmanship undertaken with all deliberate speed. If a genuine consensus on the broad outlines of the new intelligence structure could be reached before the election with details shaded in shortly after, that would serve the nation well.

We want a national intelligence director with the power to make sure the vast network has its communication lines open, but not a J. Edgar Hoover type who becomes an information tyrant, intimidating even the White House. It's also critical that a president have the benefit of competing, sometimes conflicting, points of view.

The chief significance of Mr. Bush's change in position is that he now formally supports taking some budget authority over intelligence agencies away from the Pentagon, which guards it jealously. But exactly how to achieve that without prompting military leaders to simply duplicate agencies they lose requires considerable discussion.

It's also quite possible that, as with the clumsy Department of Homeland Security, bureaucratic solutions aren't the answer at all. Maybe we should focus on tightening borders and security measures while taking a less ham-handed approach to our dealings with the rest of the world.

The Kerry folks observe that Mr. Bush has frequently gotten out in front of a parade just to slow it down, redirect it or make it appear he was leading all along.

In this instance, the goal should be to get the best possible job done with the most cooperation in the shortest reasonable period of time.

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