- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

Many federal lawmakers are locked in tight re-election battles this year. But as they return from recess, they face a task that can’t wait — revamping our nation’s intelligence system, a near-Byzantine assortment of foreign and domestic operations, divided among 15 agencies and offices.

While reform is overdue, Congress must avoid a rush to failure. The chance to fundamentally restructure our national security apparatus comes rarely. Once it is done, energy for pushing reform dissipates. Flaws can endure for decades.

That’s why we should judge Congress’ success not by how fast the committees can get a bill to the floor, but by how well members think through the reforms they deliver. Here are some ways to measure true progress:

(1) Do the reforms preserve civil liberties? The September 11 commission proposed a new position: a national intelligence director, in charge of both foreign and domestic intelligence operations. But Americans should think twice about concentrating such broad power — including collection of intelligence — in one person. At a minimum, domestic intelligence collection should remain the bailiwick of the Justice Department, to assure operations at home remain bound by the legal safeguards governing law enforcement.

In fact, a national intelligence director with no direct operational responsibility for intelligence gathering could be a big plus. America would benefit from a director who had broad oversight of the intelligence community, set priorities for the various agencies and coordinated their strategies.

We also could give the NID tools that would actually improve protection of our liberties and our security. To start, we could add an Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties to guide policy for all intelligence agencies to safeguard those rights. We could also give the NID an inspector general with authority to investigate any alleged infringement of civil liberties anywhere in the intelligence community.

(2) Do the reforms address modern threats? Our current intelligence community was designed to fight the Cold War. That why it is so heavily invested in satellites and other electronic devices that can track tanks and ships but are useless in infiltrating terrorist cells. We must wholly rethink our intelligence services to ensure they meet current and future threats.

The September 11 commission acknowledged as much, calling for creating a National Counterterrorism Center under the NID. But while the center is a good idea, it shouldn’t be placed under the NID’s direct control. That would leave the director too focused on fighting the war on terrorism. The NID must be able to track all emerging security threats. If it concentrates too heavily on counterterrorism, the NID may pay too little attention to, say, hostile states such as North Korea.

Yes, one individual should focus on analyzing and distributing critical information on terrorism. And Congress has already designated that person: the Secretary of Homeland Security. The National Counterterrorism Center should be placed under the secretary’s direction.

(3) Do the reforms assure the independence of the national intelligence director? Currently, the CIA director wears a second hat, that of DCI (director of central intelligence). Separating the two jobs makes sense. The NID should be the president’s principal intelligence adviser, serving in the same sort of capacity as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The NID should have the authority to review all intelligence budgets and policies, to advise the president on senior intelligence personnel appointments, and to run the National Intelligence Council (which should include heads of all the intelligence agencies).

But the NID shouldn’t assume direct authority over the intelligence agencies themselves. A director involved in running one intelligence agency (or more) wouldn’t able to form independent, unbiased assessments of its activities. It’s essential the president’s top intelligence adviser be able to provide scrupulously unbiased counsel.

(4) Do the reforms help integrate intelligence operations at all levels? Putting the NID in charge of everything probably isn’t the best answer. Better to look first at consolidating agencies. At least a half-dozen agencies now conduct strategic intelligence operations overseas. Some could probably be merged profitably within the CIA.

The desire to “do something,” and quickly, is understandable. After all, our very security is at stake. But for that very reason, we must take the time to do it right.

Edwin Meese III, a former U.S. attorney general, is chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation. James Jay Carafano is a Heritage senior research fellow for defense and homeland security.

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