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No rush on some 9/11 panel proposals

by Michael O'hanlon

WASHINGTON — The recent 9/11 Commission report is without a doubt one of the most thorough, most important and best studies by any such independent group in recent decades in the United States. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and now President George W. Bush, as well as much of the Congress, are right to push for quick consideration of many of its proposals.

Ironically, though, it is weakest in precisely those areas — specifically, intelligence reform — where its suggestions are garnering the most attention.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration have a lot of work to do in assessing the commission’s recommendations. Some will need refinement if they are not to prove distracting — or even downright counterproductive — in our real task of protecting the country.

The commission’s recommendations are far reaching. But the most important can be summarized as follows:

* A new position of National Intelligence Director would be created and located within the broader White House staff. That person would not run the CIA, as the current director of intelligence does. But he or she would have budgetary power and some appointment powers over intelligence agencies in the Pentagon and elsewhere, which the current director does not. The director would have an extensive staff, also located within the White House system, responsible for overall counterterrorism intelligence policy and coordination and known as the National Counterterrorism Center.

* A number of national intelligence centers would be created, and housed within whichever existing intelligence agency seemed most appropriate, to handle various other aspects of intelligence such as studying China or addressing weapons proliferation. All paramilitary capability would be consolidated within the Pentagon, the CIA thus surrendering much of its capacity in this regard.

* The lines separating domestic from foreign intelligence would be largely erased. This change would go well beyond the Patriot Act, which allows and encourages intelligence exchange between domestic and foreign investigations. Under the commission’s proposal, the locus for those different types of investigations would be one and the same.

* The commission would streamline congressional oversight of the intelligence community. Rather than have House and Senate policy committees to provide broad guidance, and then defense appropriations subcommittees to allocate funding, the proposed new structure would carry out all of these functions within a single committee in each house of Congress (or perhaps even a single joint committee).

These suggestions all have a logic behind them and merit further scrutiny. None would be disastrous. But several may have more cons than pros. Before approving them, Congress needs to ask a lot of questions — and also probably revamp some ideas. Consider several important counterarguments to the commission’s suggestions:

By being within the White House, the new intelligence czar would be closer to the president — and thus more likely to be influenced by politics. The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is sometimes used as the analogy for this new intelligence idea. But Alan Greenspan does not work at or near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and is never confused with the incumbent president’s political team. Nor should the head of American intelligence be. Staggering his term so as not to coincide with that of presidents would only partially solve this problem.

The new intelligence director might actually wind up weaker than the current one. Today’s director of intelligence has bureaucratic clout by virtue of running the CIA. The new czar would lose that. Pentagon control over the intelligence budget could actually be strengthened as a result.

The idea of creating intelligence centers within the halls of existing individual agencies is often likened to the strengthening of combatant commands (like Central Command, which has carried out both Iraq wars and the Afghanistan operation). But the Pentagon’s regional commands are based away from the main military services to ensure their independence, and their leaders are four-star officers equal in rank to the chairman of the joint chiefs.

The intelligence centers, by contrast, could be more beholden to the agencies where they were situated and from which they drew much of their staff.

Consolidating all covert action capability in the Pentagon sounds efficient. But the CIA’s covert action teams were at least as instrumental in the victory in Afghanistan in late 2001. It was also the CIA, not the Pentagon, that first armed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to allow immediate targeting of terrorist leaders. So it is not clear the Pentagon does a better job in this sort of thing.

On balance, while immediate hearings and some immediate action in response to the 9/11 Commission recommendations make sense, a little patience is in order before we overhaul the intelligence community. It is always tempting to think that bureaucratic reform will solve our fundamental national security problems. But it is rarely that simple.