Compromises Curb Spy Chief’s Power
The scattered agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community are about to get a new leader. The question is: Will that person have enough authority to make them follow?
On Tuesday, the House broke a monthlong stalemate and approved legislation to overhaul the nation’s intelligence system. The Senate is expected to follow suit today.
But the compromises that went into creating a director of national intelligence have left many government officials and espionage experts skeptical that key reforms will amount to more than an administrative reshuffling -- or will make the nation any safer.
Although the director will have substantial say over the budgets of the nation’s 15 spy agencies, the definition of the job’s authority was watered down during congressional negotiations. Because of this, the ultimate success of the spy chief will depend in large part on bureaucratic skill and the level of support provided by President Bush.
“Unless the president really gets behind the new director and, in effect, tells the [agency heads] they’ve got to cede authority” to whoever gets the job, the intelligence chief is likely to struggle, said retired Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner, who served as CIA director under President Carter.
The new director will have a say in hiring the heads of intelligence agencies, but no clear authority to fire them. He or she can move money from one agency to another to meet the needs of the U.S. war on terrorism and other challenges, but always subject to strict limits.
Above all, the new structure has the president’s chief intelligence advisor several bureaucratic layers removed from the analysts and clandestine operatives who actually gather and try to make sense of enemy secrets. As a result, current and former intelligence officials said, the new director would have significant leverage but face a struggle in the federal bureaucracy.
Turner stressed that he had not fully examined the 600-plus-page reform bill but said he was “not comfortable at this point that they’re giving the director of national intelligence adequate authority.”
Indeed, the lawmaker who had been the main obstacle to passage of the bill -- House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) -- said he had agreed to support the measure only after winning what he described as substantial curbs on the director’s powers.
Earlier versions of the legislation “had unlimited reprogramming authority. The DNI could take billions from the Department of Defense and move it to the FBI or other places,” Hunter said Tuesday. “We scaled that way back -- to $150 million, but not more than 5% of any given program or agency.”
Similarly, Hunter said, the Senate version of the bill “had unlimited power to transfer personnel. We moved that back to 100 personnel.”
Hunter, who had opposed the bill over concerns that it would make spy agencies less responsive to the military, said that for him and other members of the Armed Services Committee, “this ... was an exercise in control.”
Senate backers of the bill disagreed with the suggestion that it had been weakened. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and was a lead negotiator on the legislation, said language added in recent days to assuage Hunter’s concerns “would in no way weaken the authorities of the new director of national intelligence.”
She called the measure “the most significant reforms of our intelligence community in more than 50 years.”
The White House has not indicated whom Bush intends to nominate, but many people in the intelligence community expect the job to go to CIA chief Porter J. Goss. The former GOP congressman from Florida has been at the helm of the CIA since September.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Tuesday that “we don’t speculate on personnel matters.” A CIA spokesman also declined to comment.
The overhaul legislation prohibits the national intelligence director from serving simultaneously as director of the CIA. But a provision would allow the new chief to be based at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., until 2006, officials said.
The bill, formally known as the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, seeks to transform a U.S. spy community that was built largely to meet the challenges of the Cold War. The measure calls for the creation of a national counterterrorism center, increases intelligence sharing among agencies, stiffens visa application requirements and adds thousands of border patrol and customs agents.
Many involved in drafting the legislation say the key component is the creation of a national director, who is charged with setting priorities and preventing the sorts of intelligence breakdowns that plagued U.S. efforts in the months leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The idea has been embraced by a series of blue ribbon panels over the last decade but gained momentum in Congress only when it became a top recommendation of the independent Sept. 11 commission, which investigated U.S. intelligence failures.
Until now, the CIA director was supposed to coordinate the activities of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies. But the Sept. 11 panel concluded that CIA directors rarely have devoted much attention to that part of their job because of the demands of running the agency itself and because in practice their control over other units was limited.
In its report, the commission cited a memo that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet wrote in December 1998 declaring war on Al Qaeda and instructing other agencies to spare no effort in confronting Osama bin Laden’s militant network.
“Most of the directors in the various intelligence agencies never saw the memo, never heard about it and probably never would have shifted a dime anyway because the CIA director couldn’t tell them what to do,” said former U.S. Rep. Timothy J. Roemer of Indiana, a member of the Sept. 11 panel.
A new director of national intelligence may be in a better position to command the attention of other agency chiefs, largely because he or she will have authority to “develop and determine” their annual budgets.
But Congress whittled away at other powers that the Sept. 11 panel had urged. For example, although the commission said the director should have the power to hire and dismiss the agency chiefs, the final bill gave the director only “the right to concur in [their] appointment.”
And rather than have explicit control over how agencies spend their money, the director is to “monitor the implementation and execution” of such spending and report problems to the president and Congress.
Several officials voiced concern that having the president referee such disputes is likely to favor powerful players in the administration, particularly Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whom Bush asked last week to serve a second term.
Many of the provisions in the bill amount to “throwing the ball back in the president’s camp,” Turner said. “And I’m very worried because it appears this president won’t buck Rumsfeld.”
Several officials acknowledged that the structure of the national intelligence director position would probably remain a work in progress, but they insisted that the reforms would improve the performance of the intelligence community and make the country safer.
“The DNI is not all-powerful, but he doesn’t exist now. What were the other options?” asked a congressional aide who was involved in the House-Senate negotiations on the bill. “Does he need to be good at infighting? Well, yeah, but don’t they all?”
Roemer called the reform bill a “robust first step to creating a strong director.”
“I’m sure there will be things that need to be ironed out in the future,” he said. “But I’m confident this is the way to begin better communications among intelligence agencies, better cooperation and better sharing of intelligence.”
Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.
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