9/11 Reforms Could Weaken Rights, Says White House

July 31, 2004|Maura Reynolds and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration warned Friday that the two central reforms proposed by the Sept. 11 commission -- creating a powerful intelligence chief and establishing a new counterterrorism center -- may remove barriers protecting intelligence from political influence and undermine civil liberties.

The president and his senior advisors are drafting initial orders on some of the commission's recommendations that could be issued as soon as next week. But action on the centerpiece reforms deserves more consideration, a senior White House official said.

"We need to, in considering each of these recommendations, place a premium and real attention on how to protect civil liberties while better safeguarding our homeland," the official said.

Similar concerns were expressed by senators Friday during the first congressional hearing on the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations. The question of how to protect the independence of the intelligence community has become perhaps the most difficult dilemma for policymakers who are otherwise eager to embrace reform.

After getting off to a slow start, the White House also wants to appear responsive to the commission. A top-level White House task force -- which has met nearly every day this week -- conferred for two hours Friday to draw up executive orders on some of the simpler proposals. Those presidential actions will "go beyond" the panel's recommendations in some areas, the official said, declining to elaborate.

Civil rights advocates said they shared the White House's concerns, but questioned whether an administration that has been accused of weakening civil liberties was seizing on the privacy issue to delay action on proposals it dislikes.

As written, the commission report would allow domestic intelligence gathering, analysis and operations related to terrorism to be conducted from the White House. It also would locate the new intelligence chief inside the White House, which could make him or her more vulnerable to political influence.

The matter is particularly sensitive for the administration because of Democrats' accusations that White House pressure prompted the CIA and other agencies to skew their prewar assessments of Iraq.

"We want to ensure that the intelligence operatives and analysts maintain their autonomy. That has to be a key consideration when you consider whether to place either of those" offices inside the White House, the official said.

The Sept. 11 commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said sweeping reforms were needed to protect the country against another catastrophic strike. But the administration and Congress are wary of lessons from the scandals of the 1970s and '80s, including the Nixon administration's use of the CIA and FBI to dig up dirt on political enemies and the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra covert operation.

They also are mindful of lessons from the civil rights and Vietnam War eras, when the FBI kept dossiers on protesters.

In response to official excesses, Congress placed limits on the kinds of information that can be collected within the United States and the uses to which such intelligence may be put. Some of those protections were rescinded in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Members of both major parties fear the potential for similar abuse in putting a new intelligence director -- with authority over covert operations overseas as well as domestic activities -- in the president's inner circle.

"You sort of get into this Nixonian atmosphere, where the president now has all of these organs of government that he could use against political opponents," said a senior GOP official in Congress who asked not to be identified. "The Patriot Act is really a half-measure compared to where they're going with this."

The commission included 41 recommendations in its final report, but attention has fixed on the two main proposals: the elevation of a national intelligence director who would coordinate the activities of all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies and the creation of a counterterrorism center that would be in charge of operations and analysis in the war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

Nearly three years after the attacks, commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton said, the intelligence community still is plagued by a confusing chain of command and persistent barriers to the sharing of crucial information.

"I do not find today anyone really in charge," Hamilton said during a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "You can't possibly argue today that the CIA director is in charge of the intelligence community. That just doesn't stand up."

Friday's Senate hearing was the first of more than a dozen planned in Congress over the next month as part of an effort that is expected to lead to a historic restructuring of the intelligence community.

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