Intelligence Chief Without Power? Support Leaves Questions
WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 - President Bush on Monday cast his support for a new post of national intelligence director as an historic overhaul of the nation's major spy agencies. But White House officials left vague the authority that the new director would wield over personnel and spending, raising doubts among some experts about the real power of the new position.
Mr. Bush said the new director would "coordinate" the budgets for the nation's 15 major intelligence agencies, while Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, said the director would have a "coordinating role" in hiring. But neither the president nor Mr. Card said that the director should directly hire and fire or have authority over the estimated $40 billion that the government spends each year on intelligence. Right now, the Pentagon controls about 80 percent of the money.
"If the national intelligence director has no real budgetary authority, he or she will have no real power," said Representative Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, strongly praised Mr. Bush in a statement for proposing "wise changes" in the intelligence community. But Mr. Warner left unclear whether he supported giving the new intelligence director budgetary control, and said his committee would hold hearings on the matter in two weeks. The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks recommended that a national intelligence director should submit nominations to the president for people to run the intelligence agencies and also have ultimate control over spending.
The White House gave no indication on Monday of power struggles with the Pentagon, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made his views clear in testimony before the commission in March. Mr. Rumsfeld said then that an intelligence czar would do the nation "a great disservice" by creating reliance on a single, centralized source of information.
"In fact, fostering multiple centers of information has proven to be better at promoting creativity and challenging conventional thinking," he said. "There may be ways we can strengthen intelligence, but centralization is most certainly not one of them."
William Perry, who was former President Bill Clinton's defense secretary, said it was unrealistic to expect the Pentagon to give up control of some $32 billion - particularly when it is paying for highly sophisticated and clandestine weaponry - without an Olympian struggle.
"I think it's extremely important for this new director to have complete control over the analysis," Mr. Perry said. "But I can't see the secretary of defense giving up control of tactical intelligence systems."
The Defense Department controls some of the nation's biggest spy agencies, including the National Security Agency, which has an estimated budget of at least $7 billion, 32,000 employees and the responsibility for intercepting the communications of enemies of the United States. The Pentagon also has authority over the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates spy satellites.
Democrats said that in keeping the authority of the new intelligence chief vague, Mr. Bush was seeking to avoid a major blowup with Congress and the Pentagon before the election, and was most of all eager to be seen as proactive after the devastating findings of the Sept. 11 commission and weeks of attacks from his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry.
"All he's trying to do is get through the next three months and work out the details later," said Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who is a national security expert. "He just wants to be seen as doing something right now."
National security experts noted that much of the new intelligence chief's authority would depend on the kind of person the president chose for the job, and for that matter whether it was Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry who did the choosing.
Mr. Bush gave no specific timetable for when he might name someone to the position, and the White House did not answer questions on whether the legislation creating the job could be completed before November. But White House and Bush campaign officials have long said that the details matter far less than the pictures and sounds of Mr. Bush talking in any way about his campaign against terrorism, which polls show is still his strongest card against Mr. Kerry.
On Sunday, the homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, appeared to promote that strategy when, announcing a high risk of terrorist attacks against American financial institutions, he repeatedly praised Mr. Bush's leadership. "We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror," Mr. Ridge said.
National security experts also noted that any misgivings Mr. Bush had about re-engineering the intelligence apparatus while it is under extreme pressure to deal with terrorism had apparently been overcome.
"There is no right time to do it," Mr. Perry said. "We're going to be vulnerable for years to come."