9/11 Panel Members Question Intel Czar Plan

Two Sept. 11 commission (search) members questioned President Bush's proposal for a national intelligence director, saying Tuesday that whoever holds the job should have the power to control spending and staff at all 15 U.S. spy agencies.

Two others, meanwhile, declined to criticize the president and said they wanted to avoid being seen as overly political.

Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington and Richard Ben-Veniste (search), the former Watergate prosecutor, said the post would be weakened by anything less than full budget authority and the ability to hire and fire.

"Providing a figurehead is not what we intended," Ben-Veniste said.

On Monday, Bush announced his support for a national intelligence chief and a national center to plan counterterror operations in the United States and abroad, two key recommendations of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He rejected the commission's recommendation that the new intelligence director control all intelligence budgets and have the authority to choose who would lead the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency (search) and other intelligence agencies. Bush also turned aside the commission's idea for placing both the counterterrorism center and the director within the White House.

In Boston, two other commission members declined to join in criticism of the president.

"If we're ever perceived as being political, our mission would be jeopardized," said Fred Fielding, a Washington lawyer and Republican member of the commission.

Jamie Gorelick, a former assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration who served on the commission, called Bush's announcement "a helpful opening position" but did not insist the president adopt all the recommendations.

"Our recommendations are not a holy writ," she said, refusing to join the chorus of Democrats criticizing Bush for his plan. "We don't have a monopoly on wisdom, and there may be better ideas."

All four commission members were on a nationwide tour to promote the commission's proposals.

The commission made up of five Republicans and five Democrats released the findings of its 20-month investigation two weeks ago. The report doesn't blame Bush or former President Clinton for government missteps that contributed to the attacks. But it does say they failed to make anti-terrorism enough of a priority.

Although critical of the president's plan for an intelligence chief, Gorton and Ben-Veniste did credit Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge for issuing a more specific terror alert over the weekend, warning of potential attacks at "iconic" financial institutions in Washington, D.C., and New York.

They said they had previously told Ridge that vague nationwide alerts did little but potentially damage the government's credibility.

"The credibility of these alerts is paramount," Ben-Veniste said.