Video: Effects of intelligence reforms

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/4/2004 5:51:52 PM ET 2004-08-04T21:51:52

The 9/11 commission has achieved iconic status in Washington.

Supporters say its chief recommendations would force the nation's 15 separate intelligence agencies to share information, and reduce in-fighting between agencies that causes costly mistakes: like missing a possible chance to kill Osama bin Laden in the fall of 2000 when the CIA believes it spotted him in Afghanistan.

“What we look to the new office as is a means to removing some of the impediments that have prevented rapid action in the past,” says former Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen.

But in the rush to endorse the popular recommendations, some warnings:

Would it weaken the CIA by creating a brain drain as experts flee to the new agency?

And how long would it take for a new agency to get up to speed?

“How do you get set up, what's the logistical obstacle of setting up offices, communications? These are formidable tasks,” says former CIA covert operative John DeVine.

Other experts worry it would create more log jams, not eliminate them.

“We create a new department, we identify somebody to take control, but what we often do is just add a new layer of bureaucracy that makes it more difficult to hold anyone accountable,” says Paul Light, a government efficiency expert at the Brookings Institution.

Even more troubling to some, the 9/11 commission report says, “lead responsibility for directing and executing paramilitary operations... (like the CIA's special forces in Afghanistan) should shift to the Defense Department.” But some worry that would permit a return to rogue operations like Iran-Contra in the mid-80's. That's because, unlike the CIA, the Pentagon does not need permission from the president or Congress for covert operations.

The White House says that will not be a problem.

“We think the president has put forward the right kind of solution to meet the terrorist threats as we know them,” says White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

Finally, should major changes be made so quickly?

“It's very dangerous to try and legislate or make dramatic changes to our political structure in the middle of a political campaign,” cautions Bob Gates, who served as director of the CIA in the first Bush administration.

The concern for many intelligence experts is that the 9/11 commission has become so popular — even politically correct — that politicians oppose its recommendations at their own peril.

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