Rumsfeld cautious on proposed shuffling of intelligence duties

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld conceded Tuesday that a new, powerful intelligence director could bring "some modest" improvements to efforts to safeguard the nation but warned that any changes must not hurt the flow of information to military commanders.

"We need to remember that we are considering these important matters ... while we are waging a war," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If we move unwisely and get it wrong, the penalty would be great."

But the tide seemed to be turning against letting the Pentagon retain sole control of most of the nation's largest intelligence agencies and toward following the Sept. 11 commission's suggestion that the country create a position of intelligence director with near-Cabinet rank.

Even the acting CIA director, John McLaughlin, endorsed the idea of giving the proposed director control over foreign intelligence spending, but not intelligence spending used solely for military planning and operations.

The Pentagon now controls roughly 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion spent on intelligence each year.

"Should the president's proposal to create a national intelligence director be adopted, I believe that that individual should have the clear authority to move people and resources and to evaluate the performance of the national intelligence agencies and their leaders," McLaughlin told senators.

But the details of how that position will work remain undecided, with two influential chairmen of important Senate committees offering competing ideas.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Monday that his panel already has decided to recommend the creation of a position of intelligence director, who would get budget authority and hiring and firing power.

But Senate Armed Service Chairman John Warner, R-Va., suggested Tuesday that perhaps the CIA director could simply be elevated to Cabinet level.

"You have extraordinary powers already," Warner told McLaughlin. "Perhaps some correction could be made, or addition by Congress, to the existing powers so that there's no limitation to your ability to work as a coequal with your peer group, be it the secretary of defense, secretary of homeland, secretary of state or whatever the case may be."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that President Bush has not ruled out any ideas, including giving the director budget power. "It's important for the national intelligence director to have the authority he or she needs to do the job," McClellan said.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is writing the legislation for the chamber, and chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, hopes to have a bill completed by Oct. 1. House leaders have said their chamber will have legislation ready for action by September. Congress has ultimate authority over federal spending, minus presidential vetoes, but agency directors generally have broad control over budgetary recommendations and spending.

Giving a national intelligence director budgetary authority over the 15 intelligence agencies would mean forcing the Defense Department and its allies in Congress to relinquish some of their power.

The Pentagon currently controls most of the large intelligence agencies: the National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic communications; the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites; and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes satellite pictures.

Rumsfeld told the panel that consolidating defense intelligence agencies under a new director -- outside the Defense Department -- "could conceivably lead to some efficiencies in some aspects of intelligence collection" and "some modest but indefinable improvement."

Officials, however, must be certain that such changes do not create new problems for Pentagon-based intelligence agencies, he said.

"We would not want to place new barriers or filters between military combatant commanders and those agencies when they perform as combat-support agencies," Rumsfeld said.

Sept. 11 victims' family members testifying before a third committee pushed for quick action, not caution.

"We're at war in our own country today and that needs to be attended to," said Mary Fetchet, whose 24-year-old son, Brad, died in the World Trade Center attacks. "We can't continue to debate and do nothing. We need to move."

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On the Net:

Senate Intelligence Committee: http://intelligence.senate.gov/

Senate Armed Services Committee: http://armed-services.senate.gov/

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee: http://govt-aff.senate.gov

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