Administration Considers a Post for National Intelligence DirectorWASHINGTON, April 15 — The White House is weighing whether to pre-empt the Sept. 11 commission's final report this summer by embracing a proposal to create a powerful new post of director of national intelligence, administration officials said on Thursday.
Under the proposal, management of the government's 15 intelligence agencies, and control of their budgets, would be put under the direction of a single person. That authority is now scattered across a number of departments and agencies.
The plan, drafted more than a year ago by a presidential advisory panel headed by Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, was given little White House attention until now. It is being reviewed, the officials said, as a possible answer to the Sept. 11 commission's preliminary conclusion that the current organization of the government's intelligence agencies has left no one truly in charge on intelligence matters.
In two days of hearings this week, the panel presented a withering dissection of American intelligence agencies, with commissioners signaling that they were preparing to call for more central control.
A staff report issued on Wednesday concluded that a central lesson of the 2001 terrorist attacks was that under the fragmented system now overseen by George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, the 15 departments and agencies simply "lacked the incentives to cooperate, collaborate and share information."
Administration officials declined to discuss the proposal by Mr. Scowcroft's panel on the ground that it was still classified. But they suggested that discussion inside the White House included extensive consideration of that plan, designed to install a more powerful and centralized overseer to take charge of an ad hoc system created in haste after World War II.
Also being discussed within the White House, the officials said, were possible changes within the F.B.I., including the creation of a new directorate within the bureau responsible for domestic intelligence-gathering and analysis. The alternative of creating a new domestic intelligence agency was also being discussed but was seen as less likely to be embraced, the officials said.
It is not known whether F.B.I. intelligence gathering would be under the control of the proposed new director of intelligence.
Still, despite the gaps exposed by the panel, and the signs that the White House is feeling political pressure on the issue, some intelligence professionals and other experts have been calling for caution, questioning whether structural changes are the best way to tackle the problems described by the commission.
"Centralization is rarely the best remedy for government problems and should not be attempted here," Christopher DeMuth of the American Enterprise Institute warned last month at a conference on the issue.
Even now, administration officials say, the Pentagon's determination to retain its grip of the vast swath of the intelligence budget it now controls remains a significant obstacle to any White House recommendation for major change. Altogether the government spends nearly $40 billion a year on intelligence. At the same time, officials say, a widely perceived need to maintain some competition among intelligence agencies and produce the best analytical judgments, as well as concern about disrupting important intelligence work now under way, might mitigate against a sweeping overhaul.
The idea of establishing a director of national intelligence — or, alternatively, expanding the authority of the current director of central intelligence — is not new. In the last two years, it has been recommended to the White House by the joint Congressional committee that looked into the Sept. 11 attacks as well as by the panel headed by Mr. Scowcroft.
In recent weeks, a version of the proposal has been endorsed by Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. A similar proposal is contained in legislation introduced by Representative Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
On Monday, President Bush said for the first time that "now may be a time to revamp and reform our intelligence services." He did not outline any specific changes under consideration, and he suggested that the White House would wait for recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission and by the separate presidential commission on intelligence matters that is due to report next March.
But after John F. Lehman, the former Navy secretary who is a Republican member of the Sept. 11 panel, said in a hearing on Wednesday that "the train is coming down the track" toward an intelligence overhaul, a senior administration official said on Thursday that discussion within the White House was focusing more intensely on possible change. "We do not foreclose the possibility of doing something in advance of either report," the official said.
In his testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Tenet, who as director of central intelligence since 1997 has enjoyed direct control over the Central Intelligence Agency but more limited authority over the rest of the intelligence community, acknowledged limitations in the current structure, established in 1947.
"I wouldn't design America's intelligence community, 56 years later, the way the National Security Act designed it," Mr. Tenet said.
But he also said he would have deep reservations about any overhaul that would separate the position of C.I.A. director from that of overall intelligence chief, an idea that has been sharply debated among intelligence professionals.
"I believe that if you separate the D.C.I. from the troops, from operators and analysts, I have a concern about his or her effectiveness," he said, adding, "I wouldn't separate the individual from the institution."
By contrast, the vice chairman of the commission, former Representative Lee H. Hamilton, has in the past advocated separating the two jobs. A director of national intelligence, he said in 2002, would "have control over much, if not most, of the intelligence community budget, and the power to manage key appointments."
"You cannot be head of the intelligence community and head of the C.I.A. at the same time," Mr. Hamilton said in testimony before the joint Congressional committee looking into the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Mr. Hamilton said that he would not object to a White House effort to pre-empt the commission's findings, and that he was heartened that Mr. Bush had displayed "an open mind" on the issue. He said the commission had not yet reached a consensus on what change it might recommend.
"I'm interested in the question of giving more power to the director of intelligence, with a small d, and I don't want to go beyond that," he said. "But it is clear to me that there needs to be more unity in the intelligence community in terms of budget and management and personnel.'
The intelligence community spans the breadth of the government, but the vast bulk of its overall budget falls within the Defense Department, whose intelligence agency chiefs report simultaneously to the secretary of defense and the director of central intelligence.
The Central Intelligence Agency, though the best known part of the community, consumes only about a tenth of the overall budget, government officials say. By law, the director of central intelligence oversees the entire community as well as the C.I.A., but his authority over other agencies is limited, particularly on personnel and budget matters. In practice, the Sept. 11 panel said in its recent staff report, Mr. Tenet, like most of its predecessors, has devoted the bulk of his attention to his own agency rather than the broader community.
While praising some recent innovations, like the new Terrorism Threat Integration Center, a joint venture of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., the presidential commission has criticized the intelligence community as not having mounted a concerted strategy to address the threat posed by terrorism before Sept. 11.
A December 1998 memorandum by Mr. Tenet that declared intelligence agencies to be "at war" against terrorism was either never seen or essentially ignored by intelligence chiefs outside the C.I.A., the staff report said.