What spy reforms mean

The biggest overhaul of US intelligence since World War II formally centralizes authority.

If historic legislation to reform the US intelligence community can be summed up in a word, it might be this: centralization.

The bill - which now seems assured of passage - attempts to reorganize the constellation of US spy agencies in a manner that focuses their counterterrorism efforts. It's an effort to integrate the military, covert actions, diplomacy, law enforcement, border security, and other aspects of national power into a seamless protective force.

This kind of cooperation might be easier legislated than done, as the teething problems of the Department of Homeland Security make clear. Nor can Congress pass laws mandating personnel competence and dedication. But in terms of changing the processes of government, the bill is historic, its proponents argue - the biggest change in the US spy business since the end of World War II.

"It really is a framework for American counterterrorism policy in all its aspects," says former Rep. Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.

The often-delayed intelligence bill neared completion following a compromise on Monday. Congressional leaders added one sentence intended to make it clear that the Defense Department will have priority in disputes over how best to use US espionage satellites.

The change convinced powerful Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to drop his objections and allow the reform bill to proceed. President Bush has been lobbying lawmakers this week in an effort to win the bill's passage, and Vice President Cheney was instrumental in the final negotiations. "For a bill of this scope, size, and complexity to pass in 4-1/2 months is really extraordinary," says Hamilton.

The central change of the legislation would be the establishment of a director of national intelligence. The new DNI is meant to have enough power to shift dollars and enforce cooperation in an attempt to get US spy agencies to work together.

This new post will assume substantial authority over the National Security Agency, for instance - a largely military organization that runs the nation's electronic intelligence efforts. The bill would also create a new National Counterterrorism Center, which would build on and consume the current CIA-run Terrorist Threat Integration Center. The old organization had no authority to order intelligence operations, while the new one, on paper at least, will.

Taken together, these changes might indeed force a coordination of intelligence efforts that wasn't happening prior to 9/11, says a former US director of central intelligence. "It will prioritize the way we go about collecting and analyzing our intelligence in accordance with what's best for the overall country, and not what's best for the Defense Department," says retired Adm. Stansfield Turner.

In 1998, for instance, India conducted a nuclear test which the US did not detect, says Admiral Turner. The satellite best suited for the task was instead aimed at Iraq, where the US military was then enforcing no-fly zones against the Saddam Hussein regime. "Supporting the no-fly zone wasn't that critical" that it had to be done 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Turner. It could have been focused elswhere.

Other centralization-related changes in the intelligence bill require extensive sharing of intelligence and law-enforcement information between the national government, states, and local law groups. The bill would also set new criminal penalties for a number of activities, including receiving military training from a designated terrorist group and giving material support to suspected terrorists.

Among other things, it directs the Department of Homeland Security to pull together a national strategy for transportation security, and adds thousands of Border Patrol and Customs officers in an effort to better defend the nation's borders.

Critics of the bill point out that many of its changes aren't new ideas. They've been kicking around Washington, in one form or another, for years. Centralization per se might not actually improve the quality of the national intelligence product, says Richard Shultz, director of international security studies programs at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

It may not hurt to have a national intelligence director, but the real need is to change the culture within the CIA, says Mr. Shultz. The outcry over the recent resignations of a number of top clandestine operations shows how difficult that is.

"I just think what has to change is the way we do business and that is very hard," says Shultz.

The changes may also be too CIA-and NSA-centric. The 9/11 commission itself found out that the intelligence failure prior to the 9/11 attacks was government-wide, says Ellen Laipson, a former CIA official who is now head of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

Yet the commisison's recommendations for change may focus on a narrow slice of that government, and deal with the rest only peripherally. "It should have been equally important to address shortcomings in the FBI.... It's inconsistent with what I think was the diagnosis of the 9/11 commission," says Ms. Laipson.

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