WASHINGTON -- A key Republican's proposal to break up the CIA and rearrange the Pentagon's spy agencies under a national intelligence director met immediate and broad resistance Monday. A top Senate Democrat called it a "severe mistake" and the agency's former director said it showed a "dangerous misunderstanding of the business of intelligence."
Critics began aligning to fight the proposal that would represent the most significant overhaul of U.S. intelligence operations since the CIA's 1947 inception -- and the most sweeping plan offered in the post-Sept. 11 debate.
President Bush did not endorse the proposal by Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. Instead, the president said only that he was interested in finding "the best way to fashion intelligence so the president and his Cabinet secretaries have got the ability to make good judgment calls."
Bush has supported the need for a national intelligence director but has yet to detail the powers he wants the office to have.
'We have to be careful'Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he hadn't had a chance to see the restructuring proposal in writing.
"We do need to make significant adjustments in how we collect, communicate and dispense information," Rumsfeld told an audience of about 1,300 troops at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, on Monday.
But he added: "We have to be careful about it. ... You don't want, in the middle of the war, to go tearing up the pea patch."
Roberts surprised Republicans and Democrats alike when he announced on a Sunday morning talk show his proposal to remake the intelligence community by splitting the CIA into three separate agencies, pulling all or part of four defense intelligence agencies out of the Pentagon, and creating a new national intelligence director to oversee the National Intelligence Service he envisions.
More than three dozen attempts to reorganize the intelligence community over more than five decades have failed, he said, adding that he spoke last week with colleagues of both parties, and eight of his panel's nine Republicans have agreed that Congress must act. Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Roberts for not working in a more bipartisan fashion on the 139-page draft bill, and demanded more details.
Lawmakers who handle issues ranging from intelligence to banking are expected to offer proposals to revamp the intelligence community, prodded by a report from the Sept. 11 commission that offered more than 40 recommendations for such an effort.
The commission's vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, told the House Financial Services Committee on Monday that he wasn't ready to endorse Roberts' plan because he hadn't seen the details.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, called Roberts' bill a "bold proposal" that conforms to what the commission recommended: Put one person in charge of the intelligence community.
"Is this where we will end up? Probably not exactly, but it's a good place to start the debate," DeWine said.
Yet Republicans were hardly in agreement. A GOP Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Roberts' measures seemed too sweeping for enactment in the single month Congress has left before adjournment.
As for the Democrats, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, said in a statement Monday that Roberts' proposal departs significantly from the commission's blueprint, eliminating the CIA while it is embroiled in the war on terror.
Although he had not seen the bill's details, Rockefeller said, "Disbanding and scattering the Central Intelligence Agency at such a crucial time would be a severe mistake."
Roberts will meet additional resistance from the Pentagon, some corners of the intelligence community and their allies.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va. -- who as Armed Services Committee chairman oversees more than 80 percent of the intelligence budget, estimated at $40 billion a year -- has yet to see the bill.
His spokesman, John Ullyot, said the senator "would have concerns about any plan that would transfer critical, well-functioning intelligence assets away from the Department of Defense during wartime." Ullyot said Warner also is apprehensive about limiting the defense secretary's authority over the budget and appointments.
In a message to the CIA workforce Monday, acting Director John McLaughlin said he doesn't believe the debate will lead to a breakup of the CIA, given its vital role fighting terrorism and recent successes. He called such a move "a step backward" and said he'd speak out against it.
Former CIA Director George Tenet, in his first public statement since retiring last month, also moved to discredit Roberts' proposal, saying it "reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of the business of intelligence."
Roberts rejects suggestions that he is abolishing the CIA, noting agency employees would still go to work in the same offices. However, he and his aides conceded there would be nothing left called the CIA, nor would there be a CIA director.
The senator said that a year ago, he probably wouldn't have introduced this bill. But given the series of inquiries into the Sept. 11 attacks, the prewar intelligence on Iraq, and his eight years presiding over "Oh-my-God hearings," he said he saw the need to act.
Roberts said his draft bill is intended to serve as "a marker" because of concerns Democrats may try to pre-empt an expected White House plan and introduce the commission's 40-plus recommendations as a bill, creating a highly political debate.
He's hoping to build support for his proposals among the Sept. 11 commission members, the families of the attack's victims and his Senate colleagues.
Eyes are also still on Bush. A White House official said the staff is working on executive orders and presidential directives that can be done without legislation to implement recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.
On the Net:
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: http://intelligence.senate.gov/