Senators hold first hearing on Sept. 11 commission recommendations

Friday, July 30th 2004, 8:42 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is weighing politically touchy proposals to make massive changes to the nation's intelligence structure, something the Sept. 11 commission said must be done to protect the country against another attack.

Bucking the tradition of a quiet summer recess on Capitol Hill, the committee on Friday was holding Congress' first hearing into the commission's recently released final report. Senators were to begin discussions of the panel's recommendations and the rationale behind them with the commission's Republican chairman, Thomas Kean, and his Democratic vice chairman, Lee Hamilton.

The committee's chairwoman, Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she plans to focus on two of the most complex proposals: the creation of a new national counterterrorism center and a new national intelligence director with expanded powers over the 15-agency intelligence community.

She said she supports the idea of an intelligence director, though has questions about how the office would be set up.

That proposal, and establishing a counterterrorism center that could be run out of the White House, likely would take power away from two dominant forces in the intelligence community, the CIA and the Defense Department.

In a joint statement prepared for the hearing, Kean and Hamilton said government organization is only part of their agenda, outlined in more than 40 recommendations contained in the final report.

``No one should be mistaken in believing that solving structural problems in the executive branch addresses completely, or even satisfactorily, the current terrorist threat we face,'' they said.

The commissioners said the new center could create a system as flexible and resourceful as the enemy. And the national intelligence director, who will have sweeping authority including spending control over the entire intelligence community, is essential to improve coordination.

``We have concluded that the intelligence community isn't going to get its job done unless somebody is in charge. That is just not the case now, and we paid the price,'' the commissioners said.

Under public and political pressure to enact changes, President Bush created a working group to study the commission's recommendations and draft executive orders that could immediately implement some of the proposals.

That group was meeting again Friday and nearing completion of its work, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

``We continue to move forward on a fast track,'' McClellan said. ``The task force has been preparing some directives for the president to consider.''

Other commission proposals include disclosing now-classified intelligence budget figures and institutionalizing changes ongoing at the FBI.

The Sept. 11 attacks already have prompted the largest government reorganization in 50 years with the opening of the Homeland Security Department, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in March.

``The committee's experience with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security teaches us that it is always difficult to undertake a major reorganization,'' Collins said. ``It takes a sea-change in thinking.''

Given the Sept. 11 commission's findings and a recent Senate report that found major failings in the prewar intelligence on Iraq, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman said the case for intelligence reform is more compelling than it was for creating a Homeland Security Department.

He dismissed arguments that major changes shouldn't be made given the ongoing war against terrorism, as acting CIA Director John McLaughlin has suggested. ``The fact that we are in the middle of a war ... gives the commission's recommendations powerful urgency,'' said Lieberman, the top Democrat on Collins' committee.

The hearing is the first of at least 15 that will be held in the coming weeks by more than a half-dozen House and Senate committees. Collins said the Republican Senate leadership has encouraged her to stay focused on the national intelligence director and counterterrorism center proposals and try to produce a bill by Oct. 1.

Congressional aides also are examining a series of issues related to the proposals. Among them:

_What role will the national intelligence director have in setting policy, not traditionally the territory of intelligence officials?

_Will that person brief the president?

_Should the individual be on the Cabinet? How will its deputies and other related offices be structured?