WASHINGTON — The nation's intelligence agencies badly needs a post-cold-war overhaul, concur most spy-agency observers inside or outside of government. What they do not agree on, however, is how far the reforms should go.
Recent official and independent studies advocate reforms ranging from modest changes to a sweeping restructuring of the 14 often-duplicative agencies that make up the intelligence community.
One approach, embodied in legislation approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, would greatly expand the powers of the top intelligence official - the director of central intelligence. The committee's April 25 vote, which followed a milder proposal by the White House a day earlier, has stirred serious reservations among other lawmakers and will almost certainly exacerbate an emerging turf battle between the intelligence agencies.
The disputes highlight the powerful interests and practical hurdles confronting reform of history's largest and most sophisticated intelligence machine.
"It's hard to get anything through the system," notes Roy Godson, professor of national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, who closely follows intelligence issues.
The impulse behind calls to restructure the intelligence community was the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the agencies' chief target for almost 50 years. Demands for reform were fueled by a series of scandals, including the uncovering of Soviet mole Aldrich Ames at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the emergence of new threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
In a move aimed at renewing public confidence in the intelligence agencies, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a White House proposal that calls for disclosing for the first time the community's total annual budget, which is estimated at around $30 billion. The funds are now hidden inside the Pentagon's budget.
But at the heart of the Senate committee's actions was an effort to tighten the grip of the director of central intelligence (DCI) on the management of the different cogs of the intelligence apparatus to make them more efficient and accountable. The DCI is the nation's highest intelligence officer, and the post is held by the head of the CIA (currently John Deutch).
In theory, the DCI is responsible for overseeing the entire community. In reality, he has little time to do anything but run the CIA. To redistribute the load, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a Clinton administration proposal to create three assistant DCIs.
The panel's most far-reaching decision would give the DCI control of the budgets of intelligence agencies within the Defense Department. Advocates contend the measure is needed to put into effect a 1971 directive that vested in the DCI authority over all intelligence funds, but which was never implemented. More than 85 percent of the community's total annual budget is controlled by agencies over which the DCI has little or no authority. The DCI "needs a lot more authority over [the] budget," says committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania.
THE committee voted to give the DCI the power to oversee the budgets of the National Security Agency, which monitors foreign communications, the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates US spy satellites, and the Central Imaging Office, which analyzes surveillance data.
The proposal went further than recommendations made in March by a commission headed by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown. The commission, which conducted a year-long review of the intelligence community, was at odds with the Clinton administration's desire to keep the Pentagon's intelligence budgets under the control of the secretary of Defense.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's proposal is almost certain to encounter strong opposition from the military and its powerful supporters, including the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel had already written to Senator Specter to express its deep reservations.
Chris Cimko, an Armed Services Committee spokeswoman, says the issue may require additional hearings to address concerns but, given the packed preelection calendar, there may not be time for more hearings in the current legislative session.
Another measure approved by the Senate panel would give the DCI a role in appointing the heads of all intelligence agencies. That proposal was backed by the White House and the Brown commission. But officials concede it has triggered an interagency dispute.