Almost everyone agrees that the nation's broad-ranging intelligence community needs a strong centralized leader. But a sharp debate is emerging over whether that person is the national intelligence director as proposed by President Bush this week.
Supporters contend that such a powerful position will be able to coordinate the nation's 15 different intelligence agencies, focus their various expertise and synthesize critical intelligence - a kind of one-stop shop for the nation's leaders at a time of crisis.
Critics generally agree that reforms are overdue, but they don't believe the position as proposed by President Bush would be able to accomplish those goals. The reason: The director would be hampered by a lack of control over pursestrings and programs at various agencies - a challenge that now faces the director of central intelligence. He or she would have little or no control over the spy budget at the Pentagon, which currently controls about 80 to 85 percent of the estimated $40 billion or more that Americans spend on intelligence each year.
"Yes, it's important to have a central authority with budgetary authority, who's not in the White House who will make heads roll when necessary and bring together the 15 different agencies in the intelligence community," says Tom Sanderson, deputy director of transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "But getting from here to there is going to be difficult."
Tuesday lawmakers on Capitol Hill echoed those concerns at a hearing on President Bush's proposals. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut worried that "when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge."
Still there's general agreement that a centralized authority is necessary. Here's why: As evidenced by the findings of the bipartisan 9/11 commission and the failures of various agencies to share critical intelligence about the hijackers, the current state of intelligence affairs appears chaotic at best.
One former senior official who worked at both the CIA and the FBI describes the situation akin to a kids' soccer game. All of the 15 agencies are aggressively going after the same thing - think of intelligence as the ball - routinely bumping into each other, stepping on each other's toes and sometimes duplicating moves. Meanwhile, the congressional committees that have oversight are like parents on the sidelines, cheering, criticizing, and sometimes hollering out contradictory instructions. In the middle of it all is the current director of central intelligence. Think of him as the coach with no whistle. And the only players that take him seriously are the few on his team (the CIA).
Supporters of the president's proposal contend it will give the coach a loud whistle and the ability to organize and direct the teams, even without direct control over the Pentagon's intelligence gathering. And they say he or she will have some say on budget matters.
"If it's set up correctly it has the potential to be a good idea. Otherwise it will be more harmful if we had not done it at all," says Kevin O'Connell, director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corp. "Because it will create another layer of bureaucracy which will add to the already complex structure that already oversees intelligence."
One of the key challenges, according to Mr. O'Connell will be to "rebalance" the current intelligence resources. He believes the Pentagon does have unique and critical intelligence requirements to support war fighting capabilities, though the question remains open whether they need so much of the budget.
"We're going to have to come up with some way to be sure there are adequate intelligence resources to support our diplomatic functions, our homeland security functions, as well as our war fighting functions," says O'Connell. "This is still a very hard task."
That's one reason critics contend the president's proposal is doomed from the start. If the new head of intelligence can't decide what resources go where and how they should be used, he or she could end up just like the current director of central intelligence - with no real power over most of the nation's spies.
"If the problem is one of insufficient authority, no one in charge, this sounds to me like it doesn't even come close to fixing it," says John MacGaffin, a former associate deputy director for operations at the CIA and a former senior adviser to the FBI. "Why not put authority in the place that since the 1947 National Security Act it should have been [with the director of central intelligence]? Why would you have to add another layer of bureaucracy?"
Ron Marks, a former CIA official, supports the 9/11 commission's proposal which would create a new intelligence czar but give him or her far more budgetary control than the president' proposal. As he puts it: "In this town money talks."
But Mr. Marks does support Bush's proposal to keep the new NID out of the White House, so the office can be protected from being politicized. He also agrees that Congress has to reform and streamline its oversight of intelligence, which he contends has been, with a few exceptions, "abysmal" over the last 10 years - "nitpicking and harassing" instead of presenting any kind of comprehensive vision for intelligence.
But as much as he supports a comprehensive reform, he also worries about loosing a the key advantage of the current system - there are lots of good competing ideas. "One of the dangers of a NID is that you don't want to get into group think," he says.
Other analysts agree, saying a powerful new post must be matched by strong oversight and accountability. "It's really a mammoth task," says O'Connell.