WASHINGTON – Two influential Senate Republicans are putting forward competing proposals to change the intelligence community's leadership structure, despite words of caution from top Pentagon officials.
As Congress works through the August recess to consider recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission, congressional aides said Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (search), R-Kan., and others on the committee may have legislation drafted as soon as this week to create a new national intelligence director — with power to control budgets and hire and fire personnel.
A strong intelligence chief, along with a new National Counterterrorism Center (search), were the leading recommendations from the commission's report, released last month. The intelligence director would almost certainly take authority away from the Defense Department and CIA.
However, another powerful voice — Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va. — suggested Tuesday that the CIA director's position could be elevated, putting that person on par with Cabinet members. Warner has urged caution in the reform debate, saying changes must ensure military commanders can have confidence in the intelligence they rely on.
"I personally want to proceed, but with great caution, and do what we can to strengthen this system," Warner said, adding that he wants to cause "hopefully no turbulence or disruption in the intelligence system that now — I think — serves this nation reasonably well."
The tide, however, seemed to be turning against letting the Pentagon retain sole control of most of the nation's largest intelligence agencies and toward following the Sept. 11 commission's (search) suggestion that the country needs a higher-ranking intelligence director.
Details of how the proposed national intelligence director's job would work remain undecided. Lawmakers plan to hold over a dozen hearings this month alone, including a closed House Intelligence Committee session Wednesday morning.
At a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered a "cautionary note."
"It's important that we move with all deliberate speed. We need to remember that we are considering these important matters, however, while we are waging a war," Rumsfeld said. "If we move unwisely and get it wrong, the penalty would be great."
Also at the hearing, acting CIA Director John McLaughlin (search) endorsed the idea of giving the proposed director control over foreign intelligence spending, but not intelligence spending used solely for military planning and operations. The Pentagon now controls roughly 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion spent on intelligence each year.
"Should the president's proposal to create a national intelligence director be adopted, I believe that that individual should have the clear authority to move people and resources and to evaluate the performance of the national intelligence agencies and their leaders," McLaughlin told senators.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush has not ruled out any ideas, including giving the director budget power. "It's important for the national intelligence director to have the authority he or she needs to do the job," McClellan said.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is working on legislation, seeking input from relevant committee chairmen, including Warner and Roberts. Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, hopes to have a bill completed by Oct. 1.
House leaders have said their chamber will have legislation ready for action by September.