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Published: Saturday, 12/11/2004

Intel czar or eunuch?

IT MAY be years before the American public finds out whether Congress has created a powerful, effective figure in the new Director of National Intelligence or just another political appointee mired helplessly in a larger federal spy bureaucracy.

Put another way, it is by no means clear whether the United States will be safer from terrorism and other threats because of what is being called the biggest shake-up of the intelligence apparatus since World War II.

It's a huge job, encompassing 15 separate agencies with 200,000 employees. Much will depend on the personal strength and ability of the individual President Bush nominates for the post, and whether the President gives the DNI real authority.

Mr. Bush's record so far in such matters is not encouraging. Just look at what has happened with the ponderous Department of Homeland Security, which the President opposed, under Tom Ridge, who was given only nominal power by Mr. Bush to get anything done.

Conservative House Republicans, anxious to protect the Defense Department's power and budget prerogatives, were successful in watering down the DNI's job description. As a result, the director, who will be appointed by and answer to the President, will face some serious obstacles.

First, he or she will be empowered to set national intelligence priorities but won't be directly in charge of covert operatives, CIA analysts, or those who handle intelligence eavesdropping.

The legislation creating the post is downright vague, giving the director the power simply to "monitor the implementation and execution" of operations.

In addition, the DNI will control only part of this country's $40 billion annual intelligence budget. The Pentagon will retain control of about 30 percent, specifically the portion that pays for military intelligence.

Moreover, there is the possibility that the director could become just another presidential adviser, jousting with the CIA director and new federal counterterrorism chief, for face time with Mr. Bush.

So-called intelligence experts in and around the government are skeptical that the addition of another layer of bureaucracy will cure what the national 9/11 commission found to be serious problems in intelligence gathering and analysis.

As former CIA director Stansfield Turner put it, "We are going to have to look very closely at whether we have created a eunuch instead of a czar."

Mr. Bush was among those who at first discounted the need for not only the 9/11 commission but any major intelligence shake-up at all.

The acid test of his leadership will be how well he manages what Congress has thrust upon him.



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