WASHINGTON – A Senate committee found little consensus Tuesday on a proposal to establish a Cabinet-level chief of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies, indicating the idea could be a tough sell in Congress.
When the presidential commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks releases its report Thursday morning, it is expected to call for a new intelligence executive who would have consolidated budget authority and the ability to oversee a shake-up of the nation's intelligence community.
At a hearing of Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Republican and Democratic senators who support the concept said the time has come to lose a Cold War-era intelligence structure and provide one true national intelligence director.
"It is time to put somebody in charge of the entire intelligence community, and give that person the budgetary and statutory authority to accomplish the job," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), D-Calif., who introduced a bill to create the position and has bipartisan support from five colleagues.
"We have to mix it up big-time," she later added.
But some key voices on the committee expressed concerns about the feasibility and appropriateness of creating a new national intelligence leader.
Some Republicans and Democrats are worried the position would create another layer of bureaucracy and would become too political by giving the normally apolitical intelligence chief a seat at the president's policy-making table. Others questioned whether the intelligence director would conflict with the Pentagon over combat and resource decisions, such as where to send reconnaissance aircraft.
Saying he wants to avoid the law of unintended consequences, Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (search), R-Kansas, asked, "What problems have we identified that will be solved by such an approach?"
Under a system established with the 1947 National Security Act (search), the CIA director also oversees the entire intelligence community, under a second title as the director of central intelligence.
However, that position doesn't give the director control over money spent outside the CIA, so the vast majority of the intelligence budget — and, in effect, many of the operational decisions - are outside his authority, often within the Defense Department.
The Senate committee held its public hearing as the Sept. 11 commission prepared to release its findings and recommendations in a much anticipated report, which is not expected to be flattering toward the intelligence community.
Earlier this month, the Senate committee released a blistering report on the intelligence failures on assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Whether or not the structure of the intelligence community changes, Roberts indicated his displeasure with the current acting CIA director, John McLaughlin, who took over the agency earlier this month following George Tenet's resignation.
In a barb directed at McLaughlin, Roberts dismissed McLaughlin's response — "We get it" — since the Senate panel released its report.
"To say that 'we get it' and then imply that the problems with the intelligence community's WMD assessments were reasonable 'at the time,' or to state that the problems with the prewar Iraq assessments were isolated 'shortcomings,' says to me that there are still those that don't 'get it,'" Roberts said.
"We need fresh thinking and a willingness to look in the mirror," he said.