Intelligence reforms hit resistance
Many lawmakers are uneasy with the 9/11 panel's central recommendation: to create a powerful intelligence director.
WASHINGTON — The push for intelligence reform has hit substantial resistance on Capitol Hill in recent days - raising questions about whether changes in the US intelligence community recommended by the 9/11 commission will be able to survive the legislative process reasonably intact.
At a series of unusual mid-August hearings, few witnesses or lawmakers have flatly opposed reform. Most have said some change is necessary. Yet many have expressed unease with the 9/11 commission's central recommendation: creation of a powerful national intelligence director with budget and hiring authority over the entire US intelligence community.
The bottom line is that shuffling national intelligence involves profound change in Washington's power structure. That isn't going to happen quickly - nor should it, say some analysts.
"The proposals put forward in the 9/11 commission report are sufficiently innovative and challenging and novel that they require a lot of debate before we enact them," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, security expert at Tufts University.
One thing seems likely: Congress will at least consider some form of intelligence legislation this year. In the Senate, for instance, Republican and Democratic leaders have agreed that Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a moderate who is chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, will take the lead in producing a bill. Her target date for a draft is Oct. 1.
Yet hers isn't the only panel hard at work during Washington's normally somnolent August. Other Senate committees, such as Armed Services and Intelligence, have held hearings covering aspects of the issue they feel are under their jurisdiction. The House has weighed in, as well.
President Bush has generally embraced some of the 9/11 commission goals. (John Kerry, for his part, has urged their quick approval.) But the administration has been vague on such details as the extent of any national intelligence director's budgetary powers. That's led some Democratic lawmakers to worry that they'll work all summer, only to find their efforts trumped by a fuller administration proposal.
Some GOP lawmakers, for their part, don't think that's a bad thing. "I think it's wise for the Congress to sort of state its goals and then the administration come forward with their program," said Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia on Tuesday.
Yet with elections looming, some reform proponents believe that speed is of the essence. Already there's little time left for Congress to consider major legislation. If intelligence reform is pushed into next year, lawmakers' appetite for change may diminish. "We're going to have to break some china around here. Otherwise we will fail. We will fail," Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia told a Senate committee hearing on Monday.
Among the main recommendations of the 9/11 commission that Congress is considering is the creation of a new multiagency counterterrorism center. Also on the list is possible consolidation of the many Congressional committees with oversight power over intelligence, and the transfer of responsibility for secret paramilitary operations from the CIA to the Pentagon.
But the central change - and the one that has attracted the most controversy - would be the establishment of new NID with wide powers over all intelligence agencies. Since 80 percent of the intelligence budget is currently controlled by the Department of Defense, Pentagon officials generally oppose this change.
"This is your vintage, classic turf battle now between those who want to hold on to their budgetary and policy power and those who would take it away from them," says Jim Walsh, an expert on international security at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
In hearings over the last two weeks, both Pentagon officials and leaders of the armed services panels have expressed caution over moving DoD intelligence agencies under someone else's control. Their main worry is that battlefield commanders should have the same access to intelligence from all sources that they have now.
Former directors of central intelligence, for their part, have generally supported the creation of a more powerful NID in recent appearances on the Hill. Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner noted that President Carter gave him substantial budget power over the intelligence community via executive order. Such power could be reestablished with a stroke of a president's pen.
Yet taken as a whole this week's testimony hinted at a possible middle ground. On appointments, a new NID could be given joint authority with the Secretary of Defense for picking the chief of such important organizations as the eavesdropping National Security Agency, former Clinton intelligence chief Jim Woolsey told the Senate Governmental Affairs panel.
Woolsey and other former officials also said that the real issue on the intelligence budget is not drawing up original spending plans, but "reprogramming," or the ability to move money from one account to another after it has already been appropriated by the Congress. Such power would allow a NID to quickly put more money into, say, the recruitment of human spies, if need be. It could be exercised in consultation with the Secretary of Defense.
Virtually everyone agreed on one thing: It's bad to transfer all paramilitary operations into the Pentagon. The CIA needs the capability to carry out operations in support of intelligence-gathering. "There are clearly things that the Central Intelligence Agency does that are covert that the Department of Defense ought not to do," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.