Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Intelligence chief belongs inside


President Bush's move to appoint a national intelligence director is a relatively quick response to the 9/11 commission's report, but his refusal to give the position budgetary control or Cabinet rank undermines the main reasons for creating it.

Access is the most precious commodity in Washington. The president's proposal to put the intelligence director and a new counterterrorism effort as an independent agency outside the White House risks having the director out of the loop on key meetings and decisions. That is precisely what the 9/11 commission wanted to prevent.

The commission, formed to review the actions by American intelligence agencies before 9/11 and the government's response after the attack, recommended creating the director and the counterterrorism center to centralize foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering. The idea is to prevent the kind of failures in communication among the nation's 15 intelligence agencies that characterized the period before the 9/11 attacks.

Right now, four-fifths of the intelligence agencies are under control of the Department of Defense. White House chief of staff Andrew Card said after the president's announcement that the proposed director of intelligence would have "tremendous clout" in developing the intelligence agency budgets. That seems unlikely if direct budget control of 80 percent of the intelligence community remains with the Secretary of Defense, who unlike the proposed director of intelligence will be a member of the president's Cabinet.

The bipartisan 9/11 commission made 40 recommendations and urged immediate action on them, warning that the United States is not safe from terrorist attacks. That warning seemed all the more urgent Sunday, when the Department of Homeland Security raised the security level to orange in Washington, Newark, N.J., and New York City because of what it called credible intelligence that financial centers in those cities had been targeted for terrorist attack.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has endorsed all 40 recommendations of the commission.

The president has said he is supportive of the commission's work, but said Monday he would not call Congress back from its summer recess to consider his proposals on creating the counterterrorism center or the intelligence director post. He said the legislators could think about the proposals during their August vacation and take them up when Congress reconvenes in September.

That sentiment seems a curious contradiction to the urgency of the orange alert. The commission's recommendations deserve prompt attention. And we believe it does no good to create a position that is supposed to coordinate all of the nation's intelligence so that the president can have all of the best available information, and then leave that position out of the administration's inner circle of decision makers.

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