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Bush Narrowly Wins Intelligence Reform

by Jim Lobe

Take Intel Operations Away From Pentagon, 9/11 Panel Says

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- While opinions are divided over whether the revamp of the U.S. intelligence community laid out in the compromise bill just approved by Congress will improve the performance of the relevant agencies, there is little doubt that the failure of President George W Bush to push the bill through would have badly damaged his political credibility.*

In the end, Bush was forced to pressure recalcitrant members of his own Republican Party -- and his own top Pentagon officials -- who opposed the re-organization out of fear that the Defense Department might have to give up some of its control over the sprawling U.S. intelligence apparatus to go along with the reform.

But in order to rally support, Bush also weakened some of the most important innovations in the original bill, notably the authority of the new director of national intelligence (DNI) to control the allocation of the community's estimated $40 billion budget among its 16 agencies.

''Substantively, the intelligence bill's main importance is that it serves as an illustration that the United States government did something in response to the 9/11 Commission report,'' said John Prados, an independent expert on the national security bureaucracy, referring to last summer's report by the bipartisan group mandated by Congress to examine why U.S. agencies failed to prevent al-Qaeda's devastating Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

''The form and content of the commission's idea for the DNI post were considerably watered down, and, in the final form, the position's authority remains very much undefined,'' he noted. ''Ultimately, the problem is that the commission's recommendations have not really been acted upon."

But, if, as the critics suggest, the re-organization proves less than sweeping, the bill's approval puts an end, at least for now, to a stronger-than-expected challenge to Bush's authority from within his own party.

Even then, the fact that one-third of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the bill in spite of appeals by both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney suggests the president may have a more difficult time keeping his party in line behind him during his second term than he had in the first.

During the presidential campaign this fall, Bush insisted that he supported re-organization along the lines proposed by the 9/11 Commission's report when it was released last August, but his public backing came under question after the election.

Bush not only appeared unwilling to lobby on the bill's behalf, but even permitted top Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Richard Myers, to quietly lobby against it. Indeed, it was primarily the Pentagon's opposition to the bill that spurred the dissident Republicans to oppose it.

Failure to force the dissidents and the Pentagon into line risked inflicting serious political damage either on Bush's credibility -- in this case on whether he truly supported reform -- or on his ability to deliver Republicans behind a legislation that he had described as important and that was strongly supported by Democratic lawmakers and centrist Republicans, as well.

''Bush, fresh off an impressive election victory ... declared that he had assembled a large store of political capital and that he planned to use it,'' wrote political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) last week.

''But apparently he could not have anticipated the possibility that he would enter his second term with an embarrassing public setback engineered by his own party members in Congress with the active participation of key members of his own administration.''

As originally proposed by the 9/11 Commission, the re-organization called for the creation of a cabinet-level DNI with full budgetary authority over the intelligence community and the creation of a National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) to be attached to the president's National Security Council that would combine collection, analytical and operational functions of different U.S. agencies and report to the DNI, who was also given the power to fire and hire all agency chiefs.

The commission also proposed that the main components of the intelligence budget, which is currently classified, be made public and consolidated into a single appropriations bill rather than the current situation in which about 80 percent of the budget is hidden in the Pentagon's spending and the rest is scattered around four other departments, including State, Energy and Interior.

Bush created what he called the equivalent of the NCTC by executive order during the fall, while the Senate and House Democrats lined up behind the Commission's major recommendations.

But right-wing Republicans objected to the proposals on several grounds.

While some called for enacting some of the immigration and visa restrictions that had been included in the commission's report but omitted in the legislation, the more-important faction, unofficially backed by the Pentagon, wanted to include provisions safeguarding the defense department's control over agencies that together claim about 80 percent of the total intelligence budget: the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA).

While under the 1947 statute that created the modern intelligence community, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), who doubles as the head of the CIA, has ostensible control over the entire intelligence budget, the Pentagon has controlled those agencies in practice, in part because the kinds of intelligence the NSA and NIMA provide -- satellite imagery and telecommunications intercepts -- may be particularly useful for military commanders preparing for or engaged in battle.

Supporters of the bill insisted that, just as the DCI had never interfered in the delivery of tactical intelligence to troops on the ground, the DNI would be unlikely to do so. As one 9/11 commissioner, John Lehman, noted, ''It's a red herring that has nothing to do with the issues. This is about control of the money, and money translates to power in the House.''

Indeed, the final version of the bill goes quite far in insulating the Pentagon from the impact of the reform.

On the purely tactical level, it makes explicit that the DNI will not be in the ''chain of command'' between the Pentagon-run intelligence agencies and troops on the ground. But even more important, the DNI, which, in earlier version, had been given unlimited authority to allocate resources among intelligence agencies, will not be permitted to shift any more than five percent of the funds, or 100 personnel, from any one of them to any other.

In addition, the DNI's hiring and firing powers were essentially gutted; under the bill, the position is given the ''right to concur in (their) appointment.''

According to some critics, the main practical result of the re-organization will be the creation of a new layer of bureaucracy around the new director who, apart from his cabinet status, will enjoy no greater powers than those already held, theoretically at least, by the DCI.

Still, some intelligence professionals say the bill marks an improvement over the status quo, particularly in elevating the importance of inter-agency co-operation by putting the DNI and the NCTC in the White House and by ending the conflict of interest that was inherent in the same person holding the CIA and DCI posts.

''These are real accomplishments,'' noted Greg Thielmann, a veteran analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research who retired two years ago.

But, at the same time, Thielmann said the legislation failed to address two major, inter-related concerns: how to insulate the DNI from political pressures exerted by the White House and how to repair the failures of intelligence assessments that took place after 9/11, particularly regarding the intelligence community's mistaken conclusion that Iraq was producing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

''My real problem is that the legislation was focused on 9/11, which was basically an operational intelligence failure," he told IPS on Wednesday. ''Another enormous intelligence failure -- the Iraqi weapons assessment -- is not addressed."

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Albion Monitor December 8, 2004 (

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