IF CONGRESS and President Bush are serious about a major overhaul of the nation s intelligence structure, they won t be stampeded into or be party to a hasty patchwork job put together in the heat of election-year politics.
The worst course would be to come up with an ill-advised or poorly thought-out intelligence plan just for the sake of being able to reassure voters before Nov. 2 that something is being done to make the United States more alert against terrorism.
Unfortunately, just that sort of quick fix already is emanating from Washington.
The 9/11 commission, which just completed a landmark critique of intelligence shortcomings before and after the 2001 attacks, recommends a new national director to oversee the entire intelligence apparatus and serve as the President s principal intelligence adviser. Aided by a new national counterterrorism center to coordinate intelligence analysis and planning, the director would have executive authority over military, foreign, and domestic intelligence entities, plus significant control over the $40 billion a year budget now guided mainly by the Defense Department.
After first expressing little interest in an overhaul, President Bush, perhaps with an eye to pre-election polls, jumped into the fray and said he supports a national intelligence director and a counterterrorism center, but the director, who would not even be a Cabinet member, would lack budget and executive control, and essentially be an appendage to the current setup.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, eager to score political points, backs the 9/11 panel unequivocally. He is challenging Mr. Bush to do something, and do it fast.
But neither a crisis nor an election campaign is the ideal atmosphere for thoughtful policy planning. Just look at the insidious and unplanned impact of the USA Patriot Act, which was batted out by an unquestioning Congress in a few days after 9/11. A major realignment of the intelligence apparatus deserves careful thought and deliberation, and many questions beg answers.
Why, for example, would intelligence gathering, cooperation, and analysis necessarily be improved by simply adding a new layer of bureaucracy to the government? The jury is still out on operation of the Department of Homeland Security, a gargantuan undertaking as bureaucracies go.
Mr. Bush, who relishes his title as commander in chief, apparently does not want any official in the chain of command between the Oval Office and the Secretary of Defense, who now controls about 80 percent of the intelligence budget.
But, as Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, put it, If the new director cannot control the budgets of intelligence agencies, this new position will be no more than window dressing.
And, as Sen. Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, observed, If everyone is in charge [of intelligence], no one is in charge.
Now is not the time for the President and Congress to create a false sense of security for a nation that has been, for the last three years, held in a state of suspended worry over whether terrorists are planning an encore to 9/11.
No one in government has taken any real responsibility so far for the massive intelligence failure that preceded that awful day nearly three years ago. The American people want results, not someone new to blame for failure.