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Bush Supports 9/11 Panel but Not on Details

He would keep proposed intelligence czar separate from the White House and limit the post's budget powers.

August 03, 2004|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush urged Congress on Monday to create a director of national intelligence and called for the establishment of a counterterrorism center, two central recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We are a nation in danger. We're doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger," he said, as authorities increased security measures to protect financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., after receiving information that Al Qaeda might attack them.

The director of national intelligence would serve as the president's chief advisor in that area but would not head a specific agency. The counterterrorism center would coordinate anti-terrorist operations across the government and prepare a daily threat assessment.

But Bush's proposals differed from the commission's recommendations in two critical ways. First, the president said the intelligence czar should not be part of the White House. Second, Bush said the new director should have "input" in, but not control over, the budgets of the country's 15 intelligence agencies.

Those differences, and other vague elements in his statement, ensured that his endorsement would serve more to promote debate over the recommendations than to decide them.

"The fate of these reforms turns vitally on the specifics," the commission's chairman and vice chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former U.S. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, said in a joint statement.

White House officials indicated that it would be up to Congress to debate the specifics of the new post when it drafts the legislation to create it. They also insisted that changes in the intelligence agencies should take place in tandem with reform of congressional oversight of intelligence.

White House aides suggested that one reason the president kept his proposals imprecise was to allow for debate and bargaining with Capitol Hill, which has already begun holding hearings on the panel's 41 recommendations.

"This is the first outlining of our proposal. Of course, we're going to work on the details with the Hill. It's going to be a two-way process," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

Politically, the president's decision to back the reforms allows him to say he has accepted the commission's recommendations, which have proved popular and persuasive with the public and members of Congress.

But experts and administration critics said that without budgetary authority over the entire intelligence apparatus, the new director would hold little sway over the agencies that are part of the Department of Defense, especially the powerful Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Together the defense intelligence organizations account for more than 80% of the intelligence budget, while the Central Intelligence Agency spends less than 20%. Precise figures are classified.

"A national intelligence director who doesn't have Cabinet rank or budget authority or work in the executive office of the president risks irrelevance. It's hard to see what kind of power base such an official would have," said Daniel Benjamin of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is a different beast from what the 9/11 commission had in mind."

Bush initially opposed the creation of the commission and cooperated with its investigation reluctantly. When the report was released July 22, Bush and his senior advisors at first appeared cool to the proposals. But, under pressure from Congress and the public, they changed course and have since worked hard to appear responsive.

The pressure on Bush also stems from presidential politics. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, immediately endorsed the recommendations and has since accused Bush of dragging his feet on homeland security and intelligence reform.

"If the president had a sense of urgency about this director of intelligence, and about the needs to strengthen America, he would call Congress back and get the job done now. That's what we need to do," Kerry said Monday at a brief news conference outside a firehouse in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The president suggested that the proposed reforms were not urgent enough to cancel Congress' August recess.

"They can think about them over August and come back and act on them in September," said Bush, who was flanked in the Rose Garden by his top national security officials -- several of whom had opposed the creation of the intelligence post.

One senior congressional aide said it was likely that some reform legislation would come to a vote as soon as Congress reconvenes Sept. 7. The goal would be to pass at least part of the changes before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over the proposals are holding hearings during the recess.

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