The 9/11 Commission recommendations took a surprise hit from bipartisan criticism of a key component — a centralized intelligence center under the control of the White House. Not only has the Bush Administration quietly opposed it, but now key senators from both parties have voiced their concerns. Even the ACLU appears to back Bush:
The White House and senators from both parties raised objections yesterday to one of the key reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 commission, even as the panel’s leaders warned that the nation would remain at greater risk of terrorist attack unless the changes are enacted quickly.
The criticisms from Capitol Hill and the Bush administration represent the first significant challenge to a central recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission, which argues in its 567-page final report that a single intelligence director should work out of the president’s office to coordinate the war on terrorism.
During the first congressional hearing on the issue yesterday, several GOP and Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about that idea, saying that placing an intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center inside the Executive Office of the President could increase the potential for misuse of information and could threaten the independence of U.S. intelligence analysts.
At the White House, where officials are formulating their own package of reform proposals, a senior official, speaking on background to reporters, indicated that the administration will oppose any such arrangement. The official said Bush “wants to protect intelligence agencies from any undue influence” and “ensure that intelligence analysts maintain their autonomy.”
One of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s handling of the intelligence from Iraq was the pressure supposedly put on analysts to overstate the threat from Saddam Hussein. That turned out to be false, as the SSCI report explicitly stated. However, pushing all of the nation’s intelligence services under one person reporting directly to the President does seem to make such an occurrence more possible, if not more likely. In this regard, competition between the agencies may benefit the President as it forces more opinions to the table.
Several lawmakers suggested that the location of the center, at least, be changed from inside the White House to somewhere more neutral, a middle ground between Congress and the Executive, but so far the commission insists that its recommendations be accepted in total. Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton have both expressed concern that any delay in implementing the changes formulated by the commission will unnecessarily leave America vulnerable to a new attack. However, the panel’s mandate was to review the data and make recommendations to Congress and the White House, not a complete bypass of the legislative process. No one elected them to pass laws, and it’s entirely appropriate for lawmakers to debate the wisdom of the panel’s product, especially when Congress has expressed so much concern in the past over the autonomy of intelligence analysts.
Oddly, the Bush administration has led the opposition to the expansion of executive influence. Although they have done so quietly, the White House has repeatedly both praised the work of the commission and stated that its recommendations would be carefully considered. The Kerry campaign has attempted to leap in front of the commission’s bandwagon, criticizing Bush for not submitting the recommendations without thinking. It’s a strange position for a Democrat to criticize a Republican for attempting to limit executive control, and it’s made even stranger by support for Bush coming from partisans like the ACLU and Carl Levin:
While many of the panel’s proposals have proved popular, its call to place the war on terrorism more firmly under presidential control has produced an odd alliance of detractors inside and outside the intelligence community. In addition to spurring opposition from the Bush White House — which has zealously guarded executive power during its tenure — the idea has prompted criticism from some Democrats and from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If we act hastily to appease partisan pressures, we could create a surveillance society with an intelligence czar in the hip pocket of the president,” Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, said in a statement yesterday.
Some of the sharpest questioning about the intelligence-director proposal came from Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who sits on the governmental affairs, intelligence and armed services committees, all of which will play major roles in crafting reform legislation in the Senate. Levin told Kean and Hamilton that “a top priority of reform must be greater independence and objectivity of intelligence analysis” that is “not tainted by the policies of whatever administration is in power.”
“How does putting the director even closer to the policymaker do anything other than to make this problem even more difficult?” Levin asked at one point.
One point should be crystal clear to the American public: the commission’s recommendations are not the Word of God handed down from Mount Sinai. They reflect a good effort by a group of people who had some expertise, and a few with axes to grind. Their recommendations are worthy of serious review and contemplation, but not all of them will work the way the commission intended, and some are completely counterproductive — such as adding two layers of bureaucracy between the President and the intelligence analysts. Congress and the Bush administration should not be pressured into blindly giving the commission a carte blanche, and candidates who want to be viewed as serious thinkers should not propose to abdicate their responsibility to investigate the long-term effects of the panel’s recommendations.