Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Mr. Bush's Wrong Solution

August 3, 2004

At a time when Americans need strong leadership and bold action, President Bush offered tired nostrums and bureaucratic half-measures yesterday. He wanted to appear to be embracing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, but he actually rejected the panel's most significant ideas, and thus missed a chance to confront the twin burdens he faces at this late point in his term: the need to get intelligence reform moving whether he's re-elected or not, and the equally urgent need to repair the government's credibility on national security.

Mr. Bush spoke on a day when Americans were still digesting the terrifying warning of possible terrorist attacks against financial institutions in New York, Newark and Washington. The authorities in those cities did the right thing by stepping up security. But it's unfortunate that it is necessary to fight suspicions of political timing, suspicions the administration has sown by misleading the public on security. The Times reports today that much of the information that led to the heightened alert is actually three or four years old and that authorities had found no concrete evidence that a terror plot was actually under way. This news does nothing to bolster the confidence Americans need that the administration is not using intelligence for political gain.

The 9/11 panel's most important recommendation was to create the post of national intelligence director. Such a director would be confirmed by the Senate and have real power to supervise the 15 disparate intelligence agencies. The director of central intelligence has that charge now, without the power to do it. The commission said the new official should be part of the White House Executive Office, not a cabinet member, to ensure access to the president.

There are a variety of credible ways to construct the job, whether in the cabinet or not, but what Mr. Bush proposed is not one of them. His intelligence director would be in the worst of all worlds: cut out of the president's inner circle and lacking any real power. Andrew Card Jr., Mr. Bush's chief of staff, said the post would not carry real authority over the intelligence agencies' budgets or intelligence jobs in the Pentagon, the Justice Department and other agencies. The decision bore the unmistakable stamp of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was never going to willingly give up control of appointments or his share of the intelligence budget: $32 billion of the overall $40 billion.

Mr. Bush did embrace the 9/11 commission's suggestion - one that did not challenge his turf - that Congress stop supervising intelligence and homeland security through scores of committees and instead have one committee in each house to oversee intelligence and one for homeland security. And he went beyond the 9/11 panel in one way by proposing a post to coordinate intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. That sounds like a bad idea, especially with the administration's record of fanciful interpretations of that intelligence on Iraq.

Mr. Bush's bureaucratic dodge on the intelligence director's job is the same one he used on the job of director of homeland security. Then he was forced to reverse field, endorse a new cabinet department and claim it as his own idea. We don't care who gets credit. What's important is that Congress reject what Mr. Bush came up with yesterday and do the job right when it returns in September.