WASHINGTON – The Bush White House said Monday that acting CIA (search) Director John McLaughlin was expressing his personal opinion, and not necessarily the view of the administration, when he said there is no need for a new national intelligence chief.
A bipartisan commission investigating the 2001 hijackings, which will release its final report this week, is expected to recommend the creation of a Cabinet-level position to oversee the nation's 15 intelligence agencies and control their budgets.
President Bush's (search) chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, declined to say Monday whether the president favored creating such a position.
"We look forward to seeing the recommendations," McClellan said. He refused to disclose any specifics about what changes in the intelligence structure the White House might be mulling, saying that "the president is open to additional ideas that build upon the reforms we are already implementing."
McLaughlin said "a good argument can be made" for such a post. But, he added on "Fox News Sunday," "It doesn't relate particularly to the world I live in. I see the director of central intelligence as someone who is able to do that and is empowered to do so under the National Security Act of 1947" that created the CIA.
"With some modest changes in the way the CIA is set up, the director of central intelligence could carry out that function well and appropriately," McLaughlin said.
Asked about this Monday, McClellan said, "I think he was expressing his views."
McLaughlin also said his agency has disrupted plots to mount attacks by air, sea and other methods in the United States, adding: "It's important to remember here that for these people, an attack in the United States is the brass ring."
McLaughlin took over at the CIA when Director George Tenet left on July 11.
The new post would represent the most drastic step in structuring the intelligence agencies since the CIA was created after World War II.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, appearing Monday on a network news show, said he supports the idea.
When the position of director of central intelligence was created, he said, the country did not have several governmental agencies involved in that endeavor.
"I think a Cabinet-level official would be a wise idea," Woolsey said. "I wish people would stop calling him a czar. ... With all these other agencies, I think some coordination at the Cabinet level is probably a good idea."
Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. — said they would be open to considering the recommendation for a new intelligence chief.
"When you take a look at how important intelligence must be for our future, you realize that the current situation is untenable," Durbin said on a Sunday cable news show. Chambliss cautioned against simply creating more bureaucracy.
The CIA director now has loose authority over the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies. But the commission in a preliminary report found that the director did not hold enough power because the Pentagon (search) controls more than 80 percent of the intelligence budget. As a result, CIA requests to other agencies are often ignored.
The commission's final report, expected to be released Thursday, will highlight intelligence failures by the CIA and the FBI (search) that enabled the Sept. 11 attacks to occur.
But McLaughlin was quick to point out that intelligence agencies have improved intelligence-gathering and operations since the attacks. "The intelligence community of that day was for counterterrorism, 300 people spread-eagled across a dike. We now have a hundred people who do nothing but watch-listing alone," he said.
Potential attacks disrupted since then were in the early stages of planning, he said. And while Al Qaeda (search) has been weakened, the threat to America remains. "We can be successful 1,000 times and these people have to be lucky only once," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin, a 30-year veteran of the agency, said he is not actively campaigning to become permanent CIA chief, but will serve as long as the president wants him to. Some key senators have pressed President Bush to name a permanent replacement for Tenet soon. The White House, however, has refused to be pinned down on a timetable.
— The hunt for bin Laden has not been easy, but the Al Qaeda leader will be caught. "You remember a person shot a bunch of CIA employees out in front of our headquarters in 1993. It took us four years to catch him. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), the architect of September 11, it took us seven years to catch him. Bin Laden's time will come."
— When it comes to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (search), "there will always be some ambiguity about whether they exist. But the longer we look, the more skeptical we have to be."
— The CIA has known for some time that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers were able to pass through Iran. But he said there is no evidence the government in Tehran supported this. Nothing suggests an official connection between Iran and the 2001 hijackings, he said.