Report faults U.S. spy community, challenges strategy for overhaul

Panel cites poor coordination, calls system `behind the curve'

Bush agrees change is needed


April 01, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A commission that reviewed U.S. intelligence capabilities called on President Bush yesterday to "force widespread change" in the nation's spy network, issuing a scathing report that found that intelligence agencies were "dead wrong" about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and "still know disturbingly little" about those of other U.S. adversaries.

The bipartisan panel, formed by Bush last year after he initially resisted its creation, warned that the intelligence community is poorly coordinated, largely in the dark about emerging threats, and stuck in a Cold War-era posture ill-suited to modern security challenges.

The commission kept secret its assessment of what U.S. spies know about weapons programs in Iran and North Korea - two nations that Bush has excoriated for their nuclear ambitions - but said that the U.S. intelligence network is "consistently behind the curve" on such matters. And it called for the creation of a National Counter Proliferation Center that would focus on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

The thick report raises serious questions about the legislation that Bush signed in December to overhaul the intelligence community, and the commissioners said the president must take responsibility for answering them.

Chief among the commission's concerns is one that vexed some lawmakers as they completed last year's measure: The new national intelligence director, who is to control and coordinate operations among the nation's 15 spy agencies, might lack the power he needs to meet that daunting task.

A pressing problem for the spy chief is that, "to a certain extent, his responsibilities outrun his authorities," said commission co-chair Laurence H. Silberman, a federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan.

That concern will weigh on Bush, and on Congress, as the Senate prepares to consider the nomination of John D. Negroponte, whom the president selected in February for the post.

The commissioners have "given us useful and important guidance that will help us transform our intelligence capabilities for the needs of a dangerous new century. In other words, we need to adjust," Bush said during an appearance with Silberman and co-chair Charles S. Robb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia. "We will work to give our intelligence professionals the tools they need."

To give the new spy chief a stronger hand, the commission recommended a number of steps that are sure to be controversial in the intelligence community, including bringing FBI intelligence operations under his purview through the creation of a National Security Service and ensuring that he - rather than the Pentagon - has ultimate authority over the collection of national intelligence.

The panel also broke with Bush on what the president has said will be a key source of Negroponte's influence in his administration: his role as Bush's daily intelligence briefer.

When he tapped the former U.N. ambassador and U.S. envoy to Iraq for the intelligence post several weeks ago, Bush said Negroponte's power would stem in large part from having "access on a daily basis" to him, and from Negroponte's ability to decide what material the president sees each day.

The commission disagreed. While the intelligence director should be "ultimately responsible for the content" of Bush's daily briefing, he should not "prepare, deliver, or even attend every briefing," the commissioners told the president in a letter submitted with the report. If the intelligence chief "is consumed by current intelligence," they wrote, "the long-term needs of the intelligence community will suffer."

Bush did not respond specifically to any of the 74 recommendations contained within the harsh report, but he said he agrees with its central conclusion, that "America's intelligence community needs fundamental change to enable us to successfully confront the threats of the 21st century."

Bush tapped Frances Townsend, his homeland security adviser, to review the commission's recommendations with other officials and report back within 90 days on how to respond.

At the same time, senior lawmakers in both parties signaled that they will seek answers as early as this month from Bush and his chosen intelligence chief about how Negroponte can succeed in his new post.

"We should now turn our full attention to the future and ensuring that the new director of national intelligence has all of the authority he will need to do his job and address the problems highlighted" in the report, said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Intelligence Committee Democrat, said the report demands action beyond what Congress did last year, which he called "a critical first step."

The Senate panel is scheduled to meet with the commission Tuesday to begin considering its recommendations, and the House intelligence committee has a similar session planned for Wednesday.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.