Former government officials told Congress on Wednesday not to rush to adopt all of the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.
They expressed reservations about a key recommendation — creating a national director of intelligence — and questioned whether focusing on issues related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might worsen other problems that became apparent after the war in Iraq.
The rare public hearing by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee offered a tap on the brakes for the rapid momentum in favor of adopting the commission’s recommendations.
Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., warned: “We cannot afford to make changes blindly or in an unnecessary haste. We can ill afford to rush to judgment any more than we can tolerate needless delay.”
But the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, said the committee “appears to be moving in reverse” — holding hearings instead of working on overhaul bills that have already been introduced.
Pressure for intelligence changes has built swiftly after the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission issued its report two weeks ago. Lawmakers have interrupted their summer recess for a series of hearings. House leaders say they want legislation ready in September, Senate leaders by Oct. 1.
Iraq war raises new questions
Witnesses appearing before the panel Wednesday did not give the commission’s report a blanket endorsement.
Former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre said the commission examined only problems surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, notably intelligence agencies’ failure to connect clues that might have led to discovery of the plot.
But the war in Iraq identified other problems, especially a “groupthink” mentality in which agencies were reluctant to challenge commonly held views on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s arsenal.
“We have a connect-the-dots problem, and we’ve got a groupthink problem. And we’ve got to solve them both. But if you optimize a government solution on only one of them, you make the other worse,” said Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, noted that the commission said intelligence agencies needed to be more imaginative about possible threats. “You could also say in Iraq ... we had too much imagination,” he said. “We imagined things that weren’t there.”
Hamre and William E. Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency, expressed doubts about the national intelligence director position. Hamre said he feared that it would be poorly implemented, and Odom said the commission’s proposals could “cause far more problems than they will solve. “
O’Hanlon said he supported creating the national intelligence director but did not consider it the highest priority.
Odom said the most important change would be one not in the commission’s report: removing counterintelligence responsibilities from the FBI.
“As long as the FBI has counterintelligence, you will have poor counterintelligence. No agency with arrest authority will ever share intelligence,” Odom said.
Debate reaches presidential campaign
The Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has endorsed the commission’s proposals. President Bush announced Monday that he supported creating a national intelligence director, although not with the full powers the commission had recommended.
At a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, Bush acknowledged the debate among lawmakers about the intelligence director’s powers.
“Reform is never easy in Washington,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of entrenched interests there. People don’t like to have the status quo challenged. It’s not enough to advocate reform. You have to be able to get it done.”
Commissioners are pressing lawmakers to adopt all their proposals. “Our recommendations are not a Chinese menu. They are a whole system,” former Navy Secretary John Lehman said Tuesday. “If all of the important elements are not adopted, it makes it very difficult for the others to succeed.”