Citing U.S. intelligence failures on terrorism and Iraq, Sen. John F. Kerry pledged Friday to more than double spending on spy operations as he outlined plans to revamp the nation’s beseiged intelligence agencies.
The presumed Democratic presidential nominee called for a new Cabinet post for a czar to oversee the CIA and the rest of the nation’s intelligence agencies. He also accused President Bush of neglecting to take steps to avert the recurrence of blunders like the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot and the flawed assessments of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.
Kerry’s remarks were part of his broader argument that he was better suited than Bush to keep America safe from terrorist attacks, a central theme of the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Boston.
“The key to winning the war on terrorism is to have the best intelligence in the world,” the Massachusetts senator said. “You have to know who the terrorists are, you have to know where they are, you have to know what they’re planning, and you have be able to go get ‘em before they get us.”
Kerry’s comments came a week after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing report on prewar intelligence in Iraq and less than a week before the Sept. 11 commission is to make its final report public. They also clarified his views in the debate over how best to overhaul U.S. intelligence agencies.
In a news conference at his campaign headquarters, the senator said he wanted Americans to understand “exactly what my thinking is on how we make our nation safer.”
Nearly three years after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Kerry said, Bush “has not taken action sufficient to fix the intelligence problems that have plagued us.”
After Sept. 11, Kerry said, the president “dawdled and diddled and daddled and didn’t do what was necessary” for a year and a half before merging agencies and creating a Homeland Security Department.
Kerry, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to specify how much he would boost spending on spy operations, saying the budget numbers were classified. Cumulatively, the agencies have an estimated budget of $40 billion.
But U.S. spending on clandestine operations has risen substantially since the Sept. 11 attacks. And in its unanimous bipartisan report last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee said higher spending on clandestine CIA operations was not the answer to what it portrayed as a broken corporate culture averse to risk.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush’s reelection campaign, ridiculed Kerry’s promise to ramp up spending.
“John Kerry’s campaign trail amnesia extended today to his record of proposing intelligence cuts totaling $7.5 billion while serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee, cuts so radical even his fellow Democrats criticized them,” Schmidt said. “John Kerry’s attack is another example of his flailing efforts to defend a record that is out of the mainstream.”
Under Kerry’s showcase proposal, a national intelligence czar would oversee the nation’s 15 spy agencies. The director would supervise budget, operations, personnel and exchange of information.
Kerry had previously called for a national intelligence director, but had said that person would also be director of the CIA. Departing from that concept, his proposal Friday would have the CIA director report to the national intelligence director, who would be a Cabinet member.
Kerry’s proposal could offer a contrast with Bush in the closing months of the presidential race.
The Times reported Sunday that Bush was likely to oppose a national intelligence czar, according to a senior Republican strategist familiar with White House planning.
Instead, the administration is likely to embrace proposals to provide the CIA director with more authority over the budgets of the 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies. The director of central intelligence is already nominally in charge of coordinating those agencies, but wields little power over them.
Critics of the proposal to create a national intelligence czar include George J. Tenet, who stepped down as director of central intelligence this week after testifying to Congress that it would be a mistake to put a new layer of bureaucracy between the president and the agency that provided his daily intelligence briefing and ran clandestine operations abroad.
But a number of blue-ribbon panels, including the joint congressional committee that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, have backed the proposal. Several members of Congress also have endorsed it. Kerry called it “long overdue.”
“We still don’t have one watch list” to stop suspected terrorists from entering the country, he said. “We still have separate watch lists [compiled by various agencies]. That is one of the problems that contributed to two of the people who attacked the World Trade Center not being discovered.”
Kerry was referring to the discovery, after Sept. 11, that the CIA had failed to pass along information for inclusion on the State Department’s main terrorist watch list, including incriminating evidence about two San Diego men who were among the 19 hijackers.
Beyond the proposed Cabinet post, Kerry vowed to improve coordination of intelligence by setting up groups of experts from various agencies who would focus on specific threats, such as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction or hostile countries.
“What we need to do is make sure that all the resources are brought to bear on the most pressing threats,” he said. “That has not occurred.”
He also rejected an idea championed by his running mate, Sen. John Edwards: an independent domestic intelligence agency modeled on Britain’s MI5. Edwards proposed taking those duties away from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but Kerry would keep them there, a senior advisor said.
As for U.S. action abroad to prevent terrorism, Kerry said he would be willing to launch preemptive attacks, a cornerstone of Bush’s foreign policy. The key issue, he said, was to gauge the legitimacy of the threat before resorting to military force.
“Am I prepared, as president, to go get them before they get us if we locate them and have sufficient intelligence? You bet I am,” he said.
But to underscore his argument that Bush damaged the nation’s security by rushing into the Iraq war without building a broad enough international coalition, Kerry invoked the Cuban missile crisis of 1963.
Kerry, whose national party convention theme is “Stronger at Home, Respected Abroad,” recalled that President John F. Kennedy dispatched his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, to show photos of Russian missiles in Cuba to French President Charles de Gaulle.
De Gaulle, Kerry said, told Acheson: “The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”