WASHINGTON — The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sunday urged President Bush to quickly name a new director of central intelligence because of the risk of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"There are a number of people who have an extraordinary background that the president could send up and that we could get confirmed," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the committee's top Democrat, told "Fox News Sunday" that "during such a dangerous period for the United States," it would be "unacceptable" to leave the job vacant until after the election.
Members of Congress have been told in intelligence briefings that there is a "very plausible threat" of a terrorist attack in the United States before the Nov. 2 election, Roberts told CBS' "Face the Nation."
The senators' statements seemed to negate predictions that the confirmation of a new CIA director would be contentious, both because of the politics of the coming presidential election and because of the fallout from their committee's report, released Friday, criticizing failures in the agency's ability to gather and interpret intelligence information.
The CIA's analysis, which incorrectly concluded that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was seeking to build a nuclear bomb, was a large part of the Bush administration's justification for war.
The report blamed the intelligence failures in part on the culture at the CIA, led for the last seven years by George J. Tenet. Tenet, who announced in June that he would retire for personal reasons, officially left the agency Sunday and was replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Director John McLaughlin.
Both senators complimented McLaughlin's skills, but they stressed that it would be too much of a risk not to have a permanent CIA director in place during such tumultuous times.
If the administration puts forth an "extraordinary nominee," Roberts said on NBC, "we will go full time into the hearings to get him or her confirmed."
But another committee member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), urged the administration to "go slow" and not nominate a successor to Tenet until Congress and the president have time to reform the structure of the intelligence community.
Among suggested changes is the creation of a position -- director of national intelligence -- to oversee the CIA and the 14 other intelligence agencies, most of which come under the Defense Department.
"There are powerful interests ... in this government that don't want to change the structure," Feinstein said on ABC's "This Week." "If you get a new director that aligns himself with those powerful interests, we will never have major reform."
The Bush administration is more likely to keep the current structure but give the director of central intelligence, who heads the CIA, greater authority over the other agencies' budgets, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, quoting a senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking.
Feinstein warned that a confirmation process was bound to be "very hot."
Despite the consensus between Rockefeller and Roberts on the need to quickly put a permanent director in place, there clearly were disagreements about the suitability of some candidates for the job.
Rockefeller told NBC that Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who heads the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, did not meet his criteria for the position. Rockefeller stressed that for a candidate to avoid a contentious confirmation process, he or she should not have a "political background." As an eight-term congressman, Goss clearly does, Rockefeller noted.
But Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), another Intelligence Committee member, said on ABC that after meetings with the White House to discuss several candidates, he had "the impression Porter Goss probably would have the edge." Goss, a former CIA officer, is not seeking reelection.
Lott, as with Roberts and Rockefeller, stressed that the appointment should be made soon. He said that if a major terrorist incident were to occur while the CIA was being led by an acting director, the president would be attacked by Congress for failing to take the threat "seriously enough to give us a permanent, full-time director."
Roberts identified another potential candidate, John F. Lehman, a Republican who was Navy secretary under President Reagan and now is a member of an independent panel investigating intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The one name that was given the nod by both Roberts and Rockefeller on Sunday was Richard L. Armitage, deputy secretary of State. "I like Rich Armitage, but that's out of a personal prejudice," Roberts said on Fox. "I've known him for years. He's a tough cookie and he certainly knows intelligence."
Rockefeller has assiduously tried to avoid listing the people he considers good candidates for the job. However, when he was pressed on the Fox show, he suggested that Armitage was one of the names acceptable to senators from both parties.