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Intel reform, anyone?

By

Commission recommendations in Washington are just about a dime a dozen. Don't know what to do about a big, hairy problem? Have a bipartisan commission cogitate on it and then endorse solutions for implementation years after you have left office. It's standard Washington operating procedure.
    
Which is why it is so unusual to see the September 11 commission's recommendations be treated by President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, as worth their weight in pure gold. With the families of the September 11 victims keeping up the pressure, congressional hearings starting up this week and a raised level of terrorism alert around financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, the two contenders in this year's presidential election are rushing to plant their standard on anti-terrorist ground. 

For national security to be caught up in the presidential election campaign is certainly not the best way to formulate policy. Yet, the decisions presented by the White House on Monday - and by implication endorsed by the Democratic challenger insofar as Mr. Kerry claims he would lose not a millisecond to implement them - are moves in the right direction. Mr. Bush endorsed the creation of a new national intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center to coordinate counterterrorism plans across the government. The president also advocated strengthening congressional oversight on homeland security.
    
The commission report had harsh criticism for the uncoordinated state of U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis before September 11, and for the government's utter lack of comprehension of the nature of the threat we faced and still face. Not only did the 1993 World Trade Center bombing come as a total surprise to the intelligence community, but when the terrorist threat from Osama bin Laden was recognized five years later following the embassy bombings in Africa, virtually nothing was done to improve the intelligence community. Then followed the attack on the USS Cole and September 11.
    
The report introduces numerous recommendations. Below are those related to intelligence. The overall impact should be to counteract the effect of separate "stovepipes" of intelligence. 

  • Unify strategic intelligence and operational planning against Islamist terrorists across the foreign-domestic divide with the National Counterterrorism Center;
  • Unify the intelligence community with a new national intelligence director;
  • Unify and strengthening congressional oversight to improve quality and accountability; and
  • Unify the many participants in the counterterrorism effort and their knowledge in a network-based information sharing system that transcends traditional governmental boundaries;
  • Strengthen the FBI and homeland defenders.

Currently the director of central intelligence (DCI) serves as the president's chief intelligence adviser, head of the CIA and the government's chief coordinator of the intelligence community. That's three major jobs. The position dates back to the National Security Act of 1947, itself designed to mend the problems so tragically revealed by Pearl Harbor.

During the Cold War, however, U.S. intelligence agencies proliferated, particularly within the Pentagon. The result is that as of today, 80 percent of the budget of the intelligence community is outside the authority of the DCI. We need a national intelligence director to coordinate information gathering and sharing between our multitudinous agencies. The September 11 commission had preferred an office within the White House with full budgetary authority over the intelligence community. The president's plans would keep the office independent, with an advisory role on budgets. In the coming weeks, Congress will be studying the merits of the two proposals. Meanwhile, we also need a full-time director of the CIA to focus on reforming the agency - a high priority given its recent glaring failures before September 11 and in Iraq.

Equally important is reform of the congressional committee structure to give the Homeland Security Department its own standing House and Senate committees. Right now, homeland security officials are called to account by a cornucopia of committees. Congress itself has been slow to accept that it, too, needs a measure of restructuring.

Important to remember, though, is that haste makes waste. We don't want mistakes made in the rush for political advantage from the September 11 commission report. Where so much is at stake, we need to proceed with deliberation as well as speed.
    
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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