- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

President Bush today endorsed creation of a national intelligence czar and counterterrorism center - his first steps in revamping the nation’s intelligence-gathering system to help prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“We are a nation in danger,” Bush said as he announced his position during an appearance with top administration national security figures in the White House Rose Garden.

Bush thus embraced, with some changes, two key recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, which outlined lapses in intelligence that left America vulnerable to the attacks.

Homeland security has taken center stage on the presidential campaign with both Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry dueling over their national security credentials.

Kerry, who has given a blanket endorsement to all the commission’s recommendations, applauded Bush for embracing some commission proposals. But he said the president wasn’t moving with sufficient urgency. “The time to act is now, not later,” the senator declared, saying Bush should call Congress back from its summer recess to begin working on the changes.

The bipartisan panel’s most overarching recommendations in a 567-page report were for creation of a counterterrorism center, which the commission envisions as a joint operational planning and intelligence center staffed by personnel from all the spy agencies, and a national intelligence czar.

The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton have insisted that the center and the national intelligence director position be placed in the executive office of the president to give the White House clout in dealing with all intelligence agencies. Bush said he wants them outside the White House.

“I don’t think the person should be a member of my Cabinet,” he said. “I will hire the person and I can fire the person. … I don’t think that the office should be in the White House, however, I think it should be a stand-alone group to better coordinate.”

The new intelligence czar would oversee all intelligence functions.

Kerry criticized the president for ignoring the panel’s recommendation to put the director in the White House.

“You give greater power and leverage to the person who is the national director if they are seen as speaking directly for the president within the White House,” Kerry said. “You also coordinate more effectively with the other agencies that you need to coordinate in order to summon the greatest possible response to protect Americans.”

Intelligence reforms to help thwart terrorist attacks took on special urgency with the announcement that authorities uncovered a plot by al-Qaida to attack prominent financial institutions in New York City, Washington and Newark, N.J.

“The work of security in this vast nation is not done,” Bush said. “The elevation of the threat level in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., is a serious reminder - a solemn reminder - of the threat we continue to face.”

In asking Congress to create a national intelligence director, Bush said the person holding the post would be appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and would serve at the pleasure of the president. The director would serve as the president’s principal intelligence adviser, overseeing and coordinating the foreign and domestic activities of the intelligence community.

Currently, the CIA director not only heads his own agency but also oversees the U.S. intelligence community, which has grown to 15 agencies. But the director has neither budgetary authority nor day-to-day operational control of the other agencies, most of which are in the Defense Department. A national intelligence director would oversee all the agencies.

Under the reorganization Bush is backing, the CIA would be managed by a separate director and the national intelligence director would assume the broader responsibility of leading the intelligence community government-wide.

“I want, and every president must have, the best, unbiased, unvarnished assessment of America’s intelligence professionals,” Bush said.

He said the national counterterrorism center would build on the analytical work already being done by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. The new center will become the “government’s knowledge bank for information about known and suspected terrorists,” Bush said.

He said the new center would coordinate and monitor counterterrorism plans and activities of all government agencies and departments to make sure the nation’s efforts and actions are “unified in priority and purpose.” The director of the center, which will prepare the president’s daily terrorism threat report, would answer to the national intelligence director, once that position is created, Bush said. Until then, the center would report to the director of the CIA.

Bush was joined at the White House by acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Bush also called on Congress to reform how lawmakers oversee the intelligence services.

“There are too many committees with overlapping jurisdiction, which wastes time and makes it difficult for meaningful oversight and reform,” Bush said.

He said he had no plans to su mmon Congress back into a special session this summer. “They can think about them over August and come back and act on them in September,” he said.

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