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Bush plan to strengthen intel chief's hand

Under election-year pressure, President Bush unveiled a plan to give “full budgetary authority” to a new national intelligence director after balking at the proposal.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The White House unveiled plans Wednesday to give a new national intelligence director strong budgetary authority over much of the nation’s intelligence community, a key provision in the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendations.

President Bush intends to give the intelligence director full budget authority over the National Foreign Intelligence Program and “the management tools” to oversee the intelligence community and integrate foreign and domestic intelligence, the White House said in a statement.

The administration’s plan comes as the Senate prepares to start crafting its own legislation to address criticisms from the 9/11 commission that the nation’s 15 different intelligence agencies did not work together properly to stop the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.

Bush revealed his plans in a White House meeting with congressional leaders from both parties. Leaders were then briefed by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.

The administration’s plan would give the national intelligence director “sufficient authority to not be a figurehead and really manage intelligence,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Change of heart
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee—which is writing the legislation the Senate will consider—also called the Bush recommendations “a very significant step.”

Most members of the Senate seem to be behind creating a national intelligence director to oversee nonmilitary intelligence, and many have echoed the 9/11 commission’s call for that person to have the ability to hire and fire leaders of the intelligence agencies and to control the money Congress provides those agencies.

The White House had not previously openly endorsed that aspect of the commission’s recommendations.

But on Wednesday, the White House said “the president seeks intelligence reform legislation that is consistent with the recommendations of the 9/11 commission.”

Under the White House plan, a new national intelligence director would be appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and serve as the head of the intelligence community. The director would also be assisted by a new Cabinet-level Joint Intelligence Community Council, but the director would not sit in the president’s Cabinet or be located in the president’s executive office.

Hiring and firing
The new director would be able to allocate and shift funds within the intelligence community. But the White House did not go as far as saying that an intelligence director would be able to unilaterally hire and fire people in the intelligence community, saying only the NID should “have a role in the appointment of any individual to a position that heads an organization or element within the intelligence community.”

Intelligence leaders, however, “must receive the concurrence” of the intelligence director on appointments and presidential appointments “shall be accompanied by the recommendation” of the intelligence director, the White House said.

The Defense Department would also keep control of the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, “thereby avoiding the disruption of the war effort that a more far reaching restructuring could create,” the White House said.

Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin said Wednesday that the CIA director position could do everything that Congress wants the national intelligence director to do if lawmakers just gave the position additional powers.

“Nonetheless, now that the president has committed to create a national intelligence director, my sole interest is in ensuring that such an individual can succeed,” said McLaughlin, who also called for Congress to give the new director expanded hiring, firing and budgetary power.

FBI Director Robert Mueller echoed that call before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, even though it would mean part of the FBI’s budget would also be controlled by the new national intelligence director.

“Our intelligence budget, the expanding intelligence budget, should be controlled by the NID,” Mueller said. “I think there ought to be one appropriation. There ought to be one intelligence budget under the auspices of the NID,” including “that portion of the FBI that addresses intelligence.”