Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Sidestepping Reform at the C.I.A.

August 11, 2004

As the Sept. 11 commission made clear, the nation urgently needs to reorganize its intelligence agencies. Nominating a new candidate for the old, unreformed job of director of central intelligence, as President Bush did yesterday, is not the logical or appropriate place to start. Last week, Mr. Bush attempted to transform the powerful new position of national intelligence director, as proposed by the commission, into a neutralized bureaucratic cipher by depriving the office of any real authority. Now he once again seems intent on draining momentum from the idea of systematic intelligence reform.

Even under normal circumstances, it's questionable whether a president should try to install a new C.I.A. chief a few months before an election. Mr. Bush seems to be deliberately inviting a confirmation battle by turning to Representative Porter Goss of Florida, a partisan Republican and a man criticized for his close, protective relationship with that intelligence agency - where he once worked. After the catastrophic intelligence failures and oversight lapses of recent years, the Senate must rigorously examine Mr. Goss's suitability and political independence. But contentious confirmation hearings are likely to distract the Senate's attention from the far more important job of figuring out how to coordinate America's disparate and overlapping intelligence agencies and streamline a largely dysfunctional system of Congressional oversight.

Mr. Goss, who has served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee since 1997, shares some of the responsibility for the oversight breakdown. His embrace of the Sept. 11 report has been little better than lukewarm. While calling the committee back for August hearings, he has taken a go-slow attitude. The most important service he could perform for the country at this time would be to put his experience to work shaping reform legislation. Instead, he has been nominated for a job that will have to be thoroughly redefined.

The nation is now well aware that American intelligence operations are too far-flung and disorganized to respond to the complexities of the post-cold-war world. The Sept. 11 commission concluded that there should be a single official responsible for coordinating the intelligence work that is now spread among the C.I.A., the Defense Department and numerous other agencies.

To make the new coordinator more than a figurehead, the commission proposed that the job be endowed with power over the budgets of the various intelligence agencies and the appointment of their leaders. President Bush, in an attempt to get the credit for reform without the substance, announced his support for creating the new position - minus the budget and appointment powers. Congress has hardly begun to tackle the issue, but the president is already in the process of changing the conversation.

There is no reason the C.I.A.'s current acting director, John McLaughlin, cannot be kept in his job while the new structure is being designed. And no reason the appointment of a permanent successor cannot be delayed, at least until after the next presidential term begins in January.