House approves overhaul
WASHINGTON — The compromise legislation approved by the House on Tuesday in response to the Sept. 11 commission’s findings represents a historic reordering of the $40 billion intelligence community.
But some experts say it is not at all evident how, or even if, the changes will help America’s spies obtain the secrets and aid analysts in determining intentions of terrorists bent on striking again or worrisome states developing weapons of mass destruction.
The House voted 336-75 to overhaul the nation’s intelligence network and intensify post-Sept. 11 aviation and border security. The Senate was expected to approve the measure today, sending it to the White House for President Bush’s signature.
The most significant changes target the top of the intelligence bureaucracy, rather than the field officers, agents and intercept operators who actually do the work of recruiting spies, penetrating organizations or finding and disrupting plots in motion.
Proponents of the legislation and their allies among the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had grown frustrated by the lack of accountability within intelligence agencies. That’s why the bill designates a single person — the new director of national intelligence — accountable to the president and the American public.
But the new director is not directly in charge of any operations — not covert actions, the CIA station chiefs around the world, the army of analysts whose job is to connect the dots or the operators of high-tech collection systems that contribute so much these days to finding and disrupting terrorist plans.
Nor will the new director have total control over the Defense Department collection agencies, mainly expensive satellite and eavesdropping systems, which provide three-quarters of the country’s military and international intelligence.
There are other complications. The new DNI will have a competitor for the president’s ear. The director of a new National Counterterrorism Center will be a presidential appointee who will report directly to the president on counterterrorist operations.
This new player is confounding to intelligence experts trying to see how all the new pieces fit together with the existing system and whether the changes will make anyone safer.
“Have they created a stronger, central, senior person in chargeâ¢ It is not clear to me that they have,” said Winston Wiley, a former senior CIA official and terrorism expert. “It’s not that budgets and personnel are not important, but what’s really important is directing, controlling and having access to the people who do the work. They created a person who doesn’t have that.”
The bill says the new director will “monitor the implementation and execution” of operations, a vague description that has perplexed intelligence officials scurrying to digest the legislation. He will have control over the national intelligence budget, but not the roughly 30 percent that covers military intelligence operations. That will remain primarily under the control of the Defense Department. The new DNI will be responsible for making sure each agency knows what the other agencies know and for setting and carrying out a list of intelligence priorities set initially by the president. The biggest targets of this restructured intelligence system — al-Qaida and Iraqi insurgents — are stateless enemies who have proven illusive to the traps of traditional espionage tradecraft. Other major concerns most likely will be Iran, North Korea, China and Syria.
Proponents of the legislation argue that, even without direct control, the DNI sets the strategic priorities and then makes sure the individual departments are on track in pursuing them. “He sets targeting priorities, has the budget power to direct agencies to obtain intelligence and to order the analysis” of priority groups, countries and issues, said one congressional official involved in writing the legislation.
Combined with the changes in human intelligence collection and analysis already under way at the CIA, Defense Department and other intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress’ intent was to “complete the job that’s been done piecemeal” by handing ultimate responsibility to one person, he said.
The Sept. 11 commission concluded that there had been serious lapses in coordination of U.S. intelligence leading up to the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon and that the current director of central intelligence, who also runs the CIA, is too focused on agency operations and does not exercise the authority needed to coordinate operations throughout the government.
Among the other provisions, the bill establishes an Intelligence Directorate at the FBI and mandates training of a cadre of FBI agents dedicated to domestic intelligence. That idea is meant to address the fact that most FBI agents are trained to gather evidence relevant to making criminal cases, rather than information that might lead to uncovering terrorist plans.
The legislation funds a package of homeland security measures to bolster transportation safety and border security. For example, the bill calls for developing guidance for a biometric identification technology to screen foreign passengers and mandates a new airline passenger screening system.
It also mandates that the federal government — in most cases the State Department — undertake a host of measures to address the causes of terrorism abroad. Those measures will include creating a “democracy caucus” at the United Nations, increasing funding for rule-of-law and educational training in Afghanistan and Pakistan and expanding exchanges with the Muslim world.
Senior intelligence officials and even some legislators who supported the legislation are not sure how the long-delayed measure will work in practice.
“It’s a black hole we’re looking into,” said one U.S. intelligence official.
“There are a lot of questions, and they are inevitably going to be resolved in practice,” said a senior administration official who will be involved in melding the old and the new structures.
In order to ensure a separation from the CIA, the bill only permits the DNI to share space at the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters, now called the George H.W. Bush Intelligence Center, until October 2008, when the current president’s term is almost up.