Intelligence overhaul at last

December 09, 2004

LAWMAKERS congratulating themselves this week on finally approving an update of the nation's intelligence network more than three years after it was caught off-guard by terrorists seem most pleased at the broad, bipartisan cooperation that brought the overhaul about.

So rarely these days does a majority of both parties join with the White House to produce landmark legislation of which all can be justifiably proud, the bill's advocates couldn't resist wallowing in the moment.

For all the celebration, though, the job of strengthening the nation's security won't nearly be done when the measure becomes law. Intelligence agencies are expected to keep evolving as they develop expertise to combat new and different security threats.

President Bush and congressional oversight committees must be vigilant to ensure the streamlined intelligence bureaucracy functions as a team, but in a manner that encourages dissent and creative thinking. The nation must never again fall victim to a "failure of imagination" like the one investigators said made it so vulnerable on Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet pushing aside the turf protectors and other powerful forces with a stake in maintaining the status quo was nonetheless a major achievement that will allow the first update of the intelligence structure in a half-century and a long-overdue shift away from the Cold War model.

Inevitably, some awkward compromises were required. In a quest for accountability, one central official was put in charge of policy, budgeting and strategic planning, but denied day-to-day operational control. The harshest of the House anti-immigrant provisions were dropped but civil liberties have not been adequately protected. Revisions to the measure will doubtless have to be made in the years ahead.

So great was the resistance it seems apparent no genuine effort at intelligence reform would have been attempted at all but for relentless pressure from families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks. They insisted on the independent, outside investigation, then refused to give up until President Bush and Congress wrote into law recommendations arising from the inquiry.

Much credit also goes to Sen. Susan M. Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, who toiled alongside colleagues from both parties to craft the legislation, then stood her ground against hyped charges from conservative House committee members and the Pentagon that it would delay critical intelligence to battle zones.

The greater challenge ahead will be to build on the new framework to actually improve the quality of intelligence gathering and analysis -- not only to thwart terrorists but also to prevent fiascoes such as the faulty reports to President Bush before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Even so, a profound change in the defenses that have failed this country so utterly and so often appears under way at last.

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