WASHINGTON – President Bush signed executive orders Friday boosting the CIA director's muscle power and establishing a new national counterterrorism center.
The moves will "improve our ability to find, track and stop terrorists," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
One executive order gives the CIA (search) director additional authority on an interim basis to perform many of the functions of a proposed national intelligence director who would oversee all 15 of the nation's intelligence agencies. Bush also will work with Congress to create the position of national intelligence director, McClellan said.
Congress and members of the intelligence community are divided over creation of the new position, which would upset the current bureaucracy and balance of power among the spy agencies.
McClellan said the White House would work with Congress to make sure that the proposed national intelligence director has enough authority over spending and hiring and firing "so they can do the job and do it effectively." The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks had proposed giving the new director strong powers in both areas and making it a Cabinet position.
Another executive order establishes the National Counter-Terrorism Center (search), while a third order sets guidelines for the sharing of intelligence among agencies. McClellan said the order would establish "some common standards and clear accountability measures."
"The president is committed to doing everything in his power to make sure that we are protecting the American people," his chief spokesman said.
A congressional official said the White House has asked for the quick feedback with the hopes of making an announcement before the start of the Republican National Convention (search) on Monday, perhaps before the end of this week.
Debate over how to reshape the intelligence community picked up steam following the release of the Sept. 11 commission's 567-page report, which detailed events surrounding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and made more than 40 recommendations to reform the government.
The intelligence issue has also emerged as a prominent presidential campaign debate. Bush's Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, has said that if elected president, he would implement all of the Sept. 11 panel's recommendations.
On Friday, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards issued a statement reacting to Bush signing the orders, saying it's simply not enough.
"Nearly three years after 9/11, the president is finally acknowledging that we have failed to enact the intelligence reform needed to keep our country safe," said the North Carolina senator. "The proposal announced today does not get the job done. Expanding the powers of the existing director of central intelligence is a far cry from creating a true national intelligence director with real control over personnel and budgets."
Other Democrats also said the president's move falls short of effective reform.
"This interim step toward reform is certainly needed, but at the end of the day, Congress is going to have to enact comprehensive reform, and we need real leadership from the president to get it done," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Will the president rise to the challenge and override turf battles to support a National Intelligence Director with true budget authority over the entire Intelligence Community? That remains an open question."
Relevant congressional committees have been working through the August recess to draft legislation to implement intelligence reforms. Even with the president's actions, Congress is expected to continue its work on legislation to overhaul U.S. intelligence.
Despite the summer activity, Democrats still argue that Bush should have ordered Congress back in session to work on the issue.
"Unfortunately, the 9/11 commission's sense of urgency seems to be lost on the Congress," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "Despite requests that Congress reconvene, the House and Senate remain on a six week recess that prevents legislative action on the Commission's recommendations. "
The California lawmaker said that House Democrats will introduce legislation to implement the commission's other recommendations when Congress comes back into session and that she's encouraged House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, to co-sponsor the measure.
Two senators working on such legislation said Thursday a new intelligence chief should have significant and clear power over the budget. How much power should be given to that chief — both over policy and the purse — has been an area of significant debate in Congress.
"My support for providing significant budget authority for the new national intelligence director has been strengthened," said Sen. Susan Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The Maine Republican spoke after a closed hearing with senior officials from the Pentagon, CIA and FBI.
The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said: "A strong case was made that if you are going to create a national intelligence director, it can't be a phony, it can't be cosmetic. It's got to be real and the way to make it real in this town is with budget authority."
Collins and Lieberman, at the request of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Democratic leader Tom Daschle, are working to present the full Senate with an intelligence bill by the end of September. Lieberman said the goal was to win passage before Congress leaves for the November elections.
Both senators said they welcomed ideas proposed by other lawmakers about how best to overhaul intelligence operations. That includes a plan by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that would break up the CIA and remove several intelligence agencies from the Pentagon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.