WASHINGTON — Over the objections of several top national security advisers, President Bush endorsed creation of a national intelligence czar and counterterrorism center Monday, his first steps in revamping the nation’s intelligence-gathering system to help prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We are a nation in danger,” Bush said as he announced his position during an appearance with top national security figures in the White House Rose Garden.
Bush thus embraced, with some changes, two key recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the attacks, which outlined lapses in intelligence that left America vulnerable.
Bush was joined at the White House by acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Rumsfeld and McLaughlin strongly opposed adopting the reforms, sources told NBC News’ David Gregory, while Vice President Dick Cheney voiced “deep reservations.” But domestic security has taken center stage on the presidential campaign, and Bush has come under heavy political pressure to act quickly.
The Democratic nominee for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has given a blanket endorsement to all of the commission’s recommendations and accused the administration of dragging its feet on intelligence reform.
Kerry criticizes Bush’s speed
While he applauded Bush for embracing some aspects of the report, Kerry said that the president was not moving quickly enough. “The time to act is now, not later,” he declared, saying Bush should call Congress back from its summer recess to begin working on the changes.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card said Bush wanted Congress to act quickly on the recommendations but deliberately. He insisted that “this is not about politics.”
“These are big decisions. And as you know, this is a model that will be there for many presidents. And so we’d like to get it right,” Card said.
The bipartisan panel’s most overarching recommendations in a 567-page report were for creation of a counterterrorism center, which the commission envisions as a joint operational planning and intelligence center staffed by personnel from all the spy agencies, and a national intelligence czar.
The chairman of the commission, Republican former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, and its vice chairman, Democratic former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, have insisted that the center and the national intelligence director position be placed in the executive office of the president to give the White House clout in dealing with all of the nation’s intelligence agencies. Bush said he wanted them set up outside the White House.
“I don’t think the person should be a member of my Cabinet,” Bush said. “I will hire the person, and I can fire the person. ... I don’t think that the office should be in the White House, however. I think it should be a stand-alone group to better coordinate.”
Kerry criticized the president for ignoring the panel’s recommendation to put the director in the White House.
“You give greater power and leverage to the person who is the national director if they are seen as speaking directly for the president within the White House,” Kerry said. “You also coordinate more effectively with the other agencies that you need to coordinate in order to summon the greatest possible response to protect Americans.”
Intelligence reforms to help thwart terrorist attacks took on special urgency with the announcement Sunday that authorities had uncovered a plot by the al-Qaida terrorist network to attack five prominent financial institutions in New York City, Washington and Newark, N.J.
“The work of security in this vast nation is not done,” Bush said. “The elevation of the threat level in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., is a serious reminder — a solemn reminder — of the threat we continue to face.”
Kean and Hamilton issued a statement Monday saying they welcomed Bush’s support for “several ” of their recommendations and anticipated meeting with administration and congressional officials “about the substance of these ideas.”
“They agree the executive branch and the Congress need vital reforms,” Kean and Hamilton said of Bush and Congress. “They agree on some of the basic goals for those reforms. Now we must convert common purpose to common action.”
Czar would be coordinator, monitor
In asking Congress to create the position of a national intelligence director, Bush said the person holding the post would be appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and would serve at the pleasure of the president. The director would be the president’s principal intelligence adviser, overseeing and coordinating the foreign and domestic activities of the intelligence community.
Currently, the CIA director not only heads his own agency but also oversees the U.S. intelligence community, which has grown to 15 agencies. But the director has neither budgetary authority nor day-to-day operational control of the other agencies, most of which are in the Defense Department. A national intelligence director would oversee all of the agencies.
Under the reorganization Bush is backing, the CIA would be managed by a separate director and the national intelligence director would assume the broader responsibility of leading the intelligence community government-wide.
“I want, and every president must have, the best, unbiased, unvarnished assessment of America’s intelligence professionals,” he said.
Bush said the national counterterrorism center would build on the analytical work already being done by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which began operations in May 2003. The new center would become the “government’s knowledge bank for information about known and suspected terrorists,” Bush said.
He said the new center would coordinate and monitor the counterterrorism plans and activities of all government agencies to make sure the nation’s efforts and actions were “unified in priority and purpose.” The director of the center, which will prepare the president’s daily terrorism threat report, would answer to the national intelligence director, once that position is created, Bush said. Until then, the center would report to the director of the CIA.
Bush also called on Congress to reform how lawmakers oversaw the intelligence services.
“There are too many committees with overlapping jurisdiction, which wastes time and makes it difficult for meaningful oversight and reform,” Bush said.
Bush also called on Congress to extend key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which are slated to expire at the end of 2005.
While he urged quick action on the proposals, he showed no inclination to force Congress back into a special session this summer to consider reforms, which would require lawmakers’ approval. “They can think about them over August and come back and act on them in September,” he said.
In a conference call arranged by the Kerry campaign, Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said she was glad to see the president “finally” joining calls for intelligence reform that began more than a year ago.
Bush said the new intelligence director “ought to be able to coordinate budgets,” but Harman said the post should have “real budgetary authority.”
“That’s what’s missing from the president’s announcement,” Harman said. “Where’s the beef? Where’s the budgetary authority?”
NBC’s David Gregory, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.