Criticizing the nation's intelligence operations as disjointed and unsuited to the post-Cold War era, the special commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks urgently recommended Thursday that the sprawling information-gathering efforts of the CIA, FBI and Pentagon be combined under a single director who would report directly to the White House.
The bipartisan panel called for a national intelligence director to oversee the efforts by all three agencies and to supervise a new national counterterrorism center that would analyze threats and set priorities for clandestine work inside this country and abroad.
It also called for consolidating and toughening congressional oversight of intelligence, a job now performed by dozens of committees on Capitol Hill.
How this sweeping plan, the first of such depth since the Central Intelligence Agency was formed in the wake of World War II, would be received remained unclear. Though most in Congress applauded the commission's work, some Capitol Hill leaders warned that it was asking too much to implement such changes this year, especially with a presidential election looming.
Some questioned whether the realignment would simply add to government bureaucracy and warned that there would be resistance from entrenched agencies. Many of the changes would require legislation and the approval of numerous congressional committees, where opponents would have countless opportunities to block progress.
Even those who strongly endorsed the commission's recommendations acknowledged that Capitol Hill would find it hard to muster such purposefulness. In the Senate alone, noted Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the Armed Services, Intelligence, Governmental Affairs and Judiciary committees would all be anxiously examining whether such dramatic changes would diminish their power and reduce their turf.
"This is about as serious a project the Congress would undertake as any it has undertaken in modern times," Hagel said.
Nevertheless, the commission made the recommendations a hallmark of its report on government failures leading up to the airplane hijackings and attacks in New York and Washington.
"There is a deep, fundamental dysfunction in the way we go about our intelligence gathering and analysis and providing the data to the decision-makers," said former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman, a Republican member of the commission and a rumored candidate for a top intelligence post. "That is why we are not just recommending moving around the deck chairs and boxes on organization charts."
The most controversial change would knock the CIA director's position down one level and make that person one of three deputies to the national intelligence director. George J. Tenet, who recently stepped down as CIA director, answered directly to the president.
The report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the panel is formally known, reiterated findings by its own staff and other investigating committees that both the CIA and FBI have over the years been poorly outfitted to deal with Islamic fundamentalists bent on killing Americans here and overseas.
The commission faulted the CIA for a number of reasons. "The combination of an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure and bureaucratic rivalries resulted in an insufficient response to this new challenge," the report said.
Some key recommendations:
* A national intelligence director would be named by and report to the president but be confirmed by the Senate. The director would have three deputies: the head of the CIA, the Pentagon's intelligence undersecretary and the intelligence director at either the FBI or Department of Homeland Security.
* The director would oversee a national counterterrorism center that would replace several terrorism "fusion" centers in the government, including the CIA's new terrorist threat integration center, in an effort to erase the agency boundaries that were blamed for the government's failure to "connect the dots" of evidence in advance of the 9/11 attacks.
* Congress would name a single joint committee or one committee in each branch that would handle not only authorizing legislation but the appropriation of money for intelligence agencies. There would also be a single oversight committee for homeland security in each chamber.
The FBI, which, like the Pentagon, has its own intelligence-gathering section, also took its lumps from the commission. The proposal to have the FBI's top intelligence official report to the new director of intelligence would in effect strip the bureau of some of its independence.
Though the CIA is considered the bigger loser in the proposed reorganization, the proposal represents something of a middle ground among the ideas circulating of late to deal with intelligence lapses at the FBI.
Some members of Congress support the more radical idea of creating a new domestic intelligence-gathering service outside the bureau that would be modeled after the British secret service. The commission said it rejected that option because of concerns that a new stand-alone domestic spy-catching service could lead to abuse of civil liberties, among other reasons.
The FBI has also been trying separately to beef up its intelligence operations, such as hiring hundreds of analysts to better sort out potential terrorist threats. The commission guardedly endorsed those moves, but said they should take place under the umbrella of the new intelligence czar.
The recommendations reflect a fundamental distrust of the ability of the FBI to reform itself, reflecting a history of false starts and missteps in the months and years before the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics have said the bureau has been locked in a culture of solving crimes that had already been committed rather than trying to head off evolving terrorist plots.
The report recounted a widespread and previously documented lack of coordination between the CIA and the FBI during the summer of 2001, including evidence that top FBI officials failed to act on information collected by local agents about pilot training that could have disrupted the plot.