Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Reform in Haste
Reform in Haste

Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page A30

THE RHETORIC emanating from Capitol Hill the past few days may have created the impression that, after a hard-fought battle over key provisions, Congress worked its way to a sensible plan for reorganizing the U.S. intelligence community. Sadly, that is far from the truth. The 600-page omnibus measure on its way to approval yesterday had not been read or carefully considered by the vast majority of members, including some of those most involved in its construction. What passed for a debate in the past couple of weeks was actually little more than a turf battle by Pentagon satraps and the congressmen who share their interests on issues that are marginal to the broad reorganization outlined in the legislation.

That shake-up, driven by an odd combination of election-year politics and the determination of the Sept. 11 commission to leave a mark, may improve the quality of intelligence information supplied to the president and other key policymakers; we have our doubts. Like the passage of the USA Patriot Act or the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, it has been mandated hastily and with scant consideration of its long-term consequences.

The discussion in Congress centered on the relationship between the new director of national intelligence and three Pentagon-based agencies that consume 80 percent of the national intelligence budget. That focus reflected the clout of the current Pentagon leadership and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), its champion in the House. Mr. Hunter claims to have preserved the military chain of command and ensured battlefield officers' access to tactical intelligence; in fact, these were never in danger. Far more affected by the creation of the new intelligence czar and a national counterterrorism center is the CIA -- the agency still responsible for collecting and analyzing most of the intelligence about groups and countries such as al Qaeda, Iraq and Iran. But the CIA has no champions in the Bush administration or among Republican House members; the objections to the reforms raised by its former directors, including the recently departed George J. Tenet, were dismissed or ignored.

The agency's complaints might be regarded as predictable resistance to a reorganization that diminishes its status and that of its director. Yet some of the questions are serious: Will a national intelligence director without day-to-day authority over operations and agents in the field be as capable as a CIA director of making judgments about intelligence and operational priorities? What will be the practical relationship among the three senior intelligence officials who now will be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, including the director of the counterterrorism center as well as the CIA and national intelligence directors? Which one can best brief the president? And, most important, will this massive wartime reorganization help or hinder the critical task of bolstering the CIA's operations on the ground in difficult and dangerous places such as Iraq and Iran? Will it diminish or increase the likelihood that future intelligence judgments will fall victim to "groupthink," or political influence by a presidential appointee?

Congress no more worked through these issues than it considered those raised by civil libertarians about the legislation, which will create federal standards for driver's licenses as the first step toward a national identity system. A proposal by the Sept. 11 commission to create a panel on civil liberties to prevent privacy abuses was watered down: The board will have no subpoena power, and its members will serve at the president's pleasure. Thankfully, even more harmful proposals by House Republicans to strip immigrants and asylum seekers of crucial rights were eliminated from the final bill. But Congress will no doubt consider these measures again next year. We can only hope it will also respond if this rushed reform, like several post-Sept. 11 measures before it, creates as many problems as it solves.