Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Urgent Task Left From 9/11

The New York Times
September 14, 2004

The Urgent Task Left From 9/11

It was good news when President Bush flip-flopped on intelligence reform and endorsed giving the proposed new post of national intelligence director some real authority. That removed any excuse for the House and Senate to delay. It is time for them to enact true reform of the government's failure-ridden patchwork of 15 competing agencies.

Last week, after weeks of resistance, Mr. Bush agreed that the new national intelligence director should have "full budgetary authority" over the various intelligence organs at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department and other places. Critical details remain to be spelled out in the White House's reform bill, but giving the new supermanager the power to defy the Pentagon and shift funds and priorities as threats change was one of the crucial recommendations of the independent commission's report on the failures of 9/11.

The president's decision ended his earlier talk of a director who could merely recommend budget changes. The shift was prodded by public pressure in the campaign season, but we hope it signals the start of the real leadership that is required from Mr. Bush on this urgent issue, particularly in the face of the resistance toward serious reform already palpable in much of the Republican-controlled Congress.

As briefly sketched so far, Mr. Bush's proposal would have the new director control as much as 75 percent of the estimated $40 billion annual intelligence budget, leaving the rest to the Pentagon, which is already fighting on Capitol Hill to retain its current 80 percent domination of the money flow. The Pentagon's argument that this would leave troops exposed on the battlefield is a diversion. No serious proposal would remove the armed forces' tactical battlefield intelligence operations from Pentagon control.

To be effective, the White House bill, and whatever Congress eventually passes, had best guarantee the new director the fullest possible powers to manage personnel and to cut through the "groupthink" inertia, bureaucratic rivalries and failure to share information that were underlined by the 9/11 commission. As terrorist threats shift, the new director must be able to "move money and people quickly," in the apt summary of John McLaughlin, the acting director of central intelligence.

Whether much of this happens is an open question in Congress. The Senate has moved more determinedly than the House in promising to shape a reform bill this month. House leaders have been passive from the start. It was discouraging to hear Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, claim that "incredible progress" in intelligence gathering has already occurred since 9/11. Incredible, indeed, considering the intelligence bureaucracy's "slam dunk" certitude about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and its failure to foresee the bloody insurrection that has mired American troops.

This burning issue demands true bipartisan momentum as well as stronger leadership if an effective restructuring plan is to emerge from Congress. A worthy bipartisan benchmark has been set in both houses in a joint bill rooted in the main proposals of the 9/11 commission. The approach of Election Day presents a deadline by which voters will be able to see either true change at hand or more decades of dangerous procrastination.