Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top military officer stood side by side yesterday at the Pentagon to explain to the press why they have taken different public positions on an intelligence-reform bill.
In the case of Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, he asserted he had the right to express a preference for the House bill supported by Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and House Armed Services Committee chairman. Mr. Hunter used an Oct. 21 letter from Gen. Myers to garner support among fellow Republican conservatives to stop a House-Senate compromise bill that calls for the creation of a national intelligence director.
Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. Myers’ boss, said he stayed neutral, refusing overtures to side with Mr. Hunter because his boss, President Bush, was willing to sign the Senate bill.
Gen. Myers, by custom, is entitled to break with the White House and provide Congress his best professional opinion. Mr. Rumsfeld, though privately expressing reservations, has no such freedom if he wants to stay in the president’s good graces.
“I’m part of this administration,” the secretary said yesterday at a Pentagon press conference, flanked by Gen. Myers. “I support the president’s position.”
Mr. Rumsfeld vehemently denied charges from Democrats, and some Republicans, that he worked behind the scenes to scuttle the bill. Mr. Hunter, in an interview Monday, backed that version of events. He said he asked Mr. Rumsfeld to side with him, but the defense secretary refused.
Gen. Myers explained his competing position: “When senior officers go before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be confirmed, one of the things they ask you, ‘Would you be willing to provide your personal opinion if it differs from that of the administration on whatever matter?’” said Gen. Myers, who was nominated by Mr. Bush to two, two-year terms. “And, of course, you tell them yes, you will.”
He added, “Chairman Hunter called and asked for my opinion on a certain matter that related to intel reform and I was obliged to give him my opinion, and I did that.”
At issue is a turf battle in the form of the power given to a national intelligence director created in a bill to oversee the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies. In particular, Gen. Myers and the Joint Chiefs, who support his position, worry that an all-powerful director could result in interference in the chain of command.
Three Pentagon intelligence agencies — the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency — all provide up-to-the moment data to commanders via satellites and ground stations.
The normal chain is simple: from the Pentagon to the field. But the Senate bill gives the new civilian director vast powers to control the content and budgets of the three agencies.
Gen. Myers prefers Mr. Hunter’s bill, which guarantees the director will not interfere in the command chain.
Mr. Rumsfeld said both he and the White House were aware of Gen. Myers’ letter beforehand and of the fact the four service chiefs would back the Hunter bill in congressional testimony.
“[The White House staff] were fully aware of the chairman’s position, just as I was,” the defense secretary said. “We also were fully aware of the requirement that a uniformed military personnel, when they’re asked by the House or Senate committees their views, would give them their honest views, and he did.”
That dispute stalled the bill Saturday, as lawmakers ostensibly ended the 108th Congress. But a compromise still could be struck before year’s end. Mr. Bush has vowed to work to get a bill, which is in response to recommendations from the September 11 commission to both centralize and streamline intelligence collection and analysis.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s explanation of his actions was complicated by the fact that the White House never took a firm position until recently. This meant Mr. Rumsfeld’s testimony this summer seemed at odds with the final Senate product that the president now is willing to sign.
“I was asked by the White House to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee well before the president established a complete position on intelligence reform,” he said. “I didn’t want to. I said I thought it was not a good idea to testify until the president and the administration had a position.”