WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) on Monday endorsed creating a new national intelligence director (search) to coordinate the nation's intelligence agencies, telling senators that giving the position real power will help keep America safe.
"A strong national intelligence director is essential," Powell told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at a morning hearing. "That strength is gained by giving the NID full budget authority."
The two secretaries also said a new intelligence director will also help them do their job.
"Do you believe that a strong national intelligence director... will improve the quality of intelligence you both receive?" asked Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's chair.
"Yes, I do. We need a stronger empowered quarterback," Powell replied.
Ridge said that "I concur" and said such a move likely would facilitate his access to intelligence.
President Bush last week endorsed the idea of combining most of the nation's nonmilitary intelligence agencies under a new national intelligence director, a recommendation that the committee investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), terror attacks pushed strongly in its final report.
The panel also called for the director to have the power to decide how to spend money that Congress sets aside for nonmilitary intelligence work. Bush also supports that idea, as do many members of Congress.
The Sept. 11 commission (search) said part of the problem before and on Sept. 11 was that the nation's 15 intelligence agencies were not working properly together, and said creating a strong intelligence director would force those agencies to cooperate.
"The president's proposal will provide better unity of effort in the intelligence community and improved linkage with law enforcement, which will greatly enhance our ability to do our job of protecting Americans and securing the homeland," Ridge said. "The new responsibilities of the DCI will ensure that DHS has what it needs from other intelligence agencies and that our efforts are properly integrated in the national intelligence picture."
The Senate next week expects to start working on final legislation to reorganize the 15 intelligence agencies and create a national intelligence director. House leaders are still working out how that chamber will deal with the Sept. 11 commission's legislative recommendations.
One intelligence agency not affected by the president's or the Sept. 11 commission's proposal is the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (search), which gets its $50 million from that department's budget and works directly with the secretary of state.
When questioned by Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Powell said he wanted to keep control of that agency but agreed that the national intelligence director should "have the ability to concur" on who the agency's director will be, "and if there's a disagreement, we'll take it to the president."
But "INR works for me as it always has in the past," Powell said.