President Bush on Wednesday handed Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte broad authority over America’s disparate and often-competing spy agencies, bringing U.S. domestic and foreign intelligence operations more closely under White House control.
Bush ordered the changes three months after a presidential commission issued a withering indictment of the intelligence failures that preceded the Iraq war. The commission said that a poorly coordinated intelligence community in the U.S. was producing work that was becoming “increasingly irrelevant.”
The president adopted nearly all of the panel’s 74 recommendations and took other steps toward completing the first overhaul of the U.S. intelligence apparatus since World War II.
In one of the most significant moves, Bush ordered the consolidation of the FBI’s counterterrorism, intelligence and espionage operations into one National Security Service. The new office will be part of the FBI, but Negroponte will have authority over its budget and priorities -- a move intended to reduce barriers between domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering.
Wednesday’s changes further defined the post of director of national intelligence. The job was the centerpiece of an intelligence bill adopted by Congress in December, and Bush chose Negroponte for the post in February.
Serving as the president’s principal intelligence advisor, Negroponte holds a new job that oversees all 15 intelligence agencies scattered throughout the government, putting him in a position to quickly communicate White House wishes to a wide network of spies.
“If there was any doubt about the DNI’s authority, and whether the president was going to empower the DNI, that shouldn’t remain today,” said Frances Townsend, the White House domestic security advisor who was assigned by Bush to coordinate the administration’s response to the commission recommendations.
The president’s action Wednesday represented “a fundamental strengthening of our intelligence capabilities,” Townsend said. “It’s not simply a moving of boxes. It’s not simply a restructuring.”
Negroponte will be in charge of implementing the reorganization, which still could encounter opposition within agencies that long have been protective of their individual shares of the U.S. intelligence budget, estimated to be $40 billion a year.
The presidential commission -- headed by Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, a former Virginia senator and governor -- was created in 2004 to investigate the intelligence community’s failure to accurately assess Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The commission issued its report in March; Bush’s announcement Wednesday came at the end of a 90-day review period.
Robb praised the White House’s acceptance of his panel’s recommendations, but said, “The implementation won’t be easy.”
In addition to instituting changes suggested by the panel, Bush on Wednesday gave U.S. agencies the authority to freeze assets of companies and organizations suspected of aiding Iran, North Korea and Syria in their pursuit of unconventional weapons.
Among other commission recommendations, Bush announced the creation of a National Counter Proliferation Center that would report to Negroponte. With a staff of between 50 and 100 people, the center is to be the government’s clearinghouse for tracking the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
And in a victory for the beleaguered CIA, Bush created a position within the agency that would coordinate all U.S. spying operations overseas that use human sources.
The Pentagon is working to expand its human spying abilities, but officials said Wednesday that the Defense Department would coordinate its clandestine missions with the CIA.
Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Negroponte’s deputy, said that the new CIA position would set standards to validate information provided by foreign agents to avoid a repeat of the “Curveball” episode before the Iraq war.
“Curveball” was the code name assigned to an Iraqi defector who was the chief U.S. source for information about Saddam Hussein’s purported biological weapons laboratories. All of the information Curveball gave to U.S. and European intelligence operatives eventually was discredited.
The White House did reject a recommendation by the panel that would have moved the planning of covert actions out of the CIA and into the National Counter Proliferation Center and the National Counter Terrorism Center -- both of which are controlled by Negroponte.
“There were persuasive and strong arguments made against doing that, and we believe the reorganization of the CIA ... will meet the same objectives,” Townsend said.
Yet top officials agreed Wednesday that reforming a dysfunctional intelligence apparatus and improving the nation’s ability to steal secrets and analyze millions of bits of information would require an overhaul of not only the bureaucracy, but also the culture within the intelligence community.
“The quality of analysis is not something you fix by rewiring an [organization] chart,” Hayden said.
Some experts interpreted Bush’s moves as a historic loss of autonomy for the FBI. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the bureau has tried to create a new security service on its own, hiring hundreds of analysts and redeploying agents from drug cases to terrorism. Its moves were endorsed last summer by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
But the shift from chasing bank robbers to sniffing out terrorist plots was complicated by a culture used to rewarding arrests and convictions, not appreciating the writing of abstract threat analyses. There were other problems, including a bungled $100-million upgrade of its creaky computer network.
Bush said in his executive order that the bureau and the Justice Department had made “substantial progress” but that “further prompt action is necessary to meet challenges to the security of the United States.”
FBI officials previously had resisted the changes, saying they would create another layer of bureaucracy. But in a briefing for reporters Wednesday, Director Robert S. Mueller III said: “I don’t see it as a loss of independence at all.
“We all have to work together. We cannot do it alone.”
Mueller said the bureau had made “tremendous strides” since Sept. 11, preparing hundreds of intelligence reports, placing analysts and intelligence groups in each of the bureau’s 56 U.S. field offices, and more than doubling the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism.
Hayden said that closer coordination between the director of national intelligence and the FBI was essential, and that it was also essential to break down artificial barriers between foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering. Terrorists plotting attacks against the U.S., he said, make no such distinctions.
Hayden also said there were legitimate concerns that the changes and a new focus on domestic intelligence-gathering might lead to civil liberties abuses.
But, he said, “I’m pretty confident we can do this, and do it in a way, by any reasonable judge, American liberties are well-preserved,” he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
President Bush endorsed most of the recommendations made by the weapons of mass destruction commission created last year. On Wednesday, the White House adopted 70 suggested changes, including:
New assistant attorney general: With congressional approval, a new assistant attorney general for national security would consolidate counterterrorism, espionage and intelligence units.
National Security Service: A new unit would be created within the FBI to specialize in intelligence and other national security matters and respond to priorities set by the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte.
National Counter Proliferation Center: Negroponte would establish a new agency to manage and coordinate the intelligence community’s activities on proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Freezing assets: An executive order would allow the freezing of financial assets in the U.S. of people, companies or groups involved in spreading weapons of mass destruction.
Source: The White House, Associated Press