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President calls for creating intelligence chief

WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday embraced the creation of a strong national intelligence director with ''full budgetary authority" over America's spy agencies, unveiling a proposal for sweeping changes in the nation's intelligence community that are expected to be made before the November presidential election.

Bush's plan, proposed a day after key lawmakers offered a bipartisan bill to overhaul the intelligence services, represented an election year shift for the president, who initially resisted the creation of an intelligence chief with real authority over a host of agencies. The new post was the keystone recommendation of the 9/11 commission, which found that numerous intelligence failings left the United States vulnerable to attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

The president outlined his plan to better coordinate intelligence missions overseas and in the United States and improve the analysis of potential security threats during a White House meeting yesterday with an evenly divided group of two dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

''We believe that there ought to be a national intelligence director who has full budgetary authority," Bush said in brief remarks before meeting with lawmakers in the Cabinet Room. ''I look forward to working with the members to get a bill to my desk as quickly as possible. It's important we get our intelligence gathering correct."

Bush's proposal gave new impetus to the election-year push to reform the US intelligence community.

Several congressional committees had cut short the August recess to address the 9/11 report, and various congressional proposals have been put forward, yet Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had been waiting for the White House to weigh in with its own reform proposal.

But not everyone welcomed Bush's announcement, with some Democrats faulting the president as not being bold enough: The president's proposal did not completely remove three key military intelligence agencies from the Pentagon's purview, as the 9/11 commission recommended.

''The devil is in the details," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters. She accused Bush of being slow to accept the 9/11 commission's central recommendation and said she would reserve judgment on the proposal until it is formally presented to Congress.

Bush had already taken incremental steps toward the 9/11 commission's recommendation. He issued executive orders last month, for example, that authorized the CIA director to assume budget authority that the director has never exercised over the other intelligence agencies.

Both the Pentagon and CIA expressed opposition to aspects of the commission's proposal to create an intelligence chief, but Bush aides said yesterday the president has decided to overrule most of their protests.

The president's proposal calls for a national intelligence director -- who would operate outside the White House to maintain independence -- to serve as the head of all US intelligence agencies.

As recommended by the 9/11 commission, the top spy would allocate the funds for the so-called National Foreign Intelligence Program, which includes tens of billions of dollars spread across more than a dozen agencies. Nominees for the position would be confirmed by the Senate.

The director would also have coordinating authority over the intelligence activities of the CIA, Pentagon, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. However, Bush's proposal would keep the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office under the stewardship of the Department of Defense, ''thereby avoiding the disruption of the war effort that a more far-reaching restructuring could create," according to a White House fact sheet.

Administration officials have expressed concern about any changes that could affect the way troops in the field work with the intelligence agents who help them plan missions and select targets, especially while the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism are ongoing.

Some lawmakers and military leaders have voiced reservations about adopting the full 9/11 commission recommendation to pull those agencies out of the Pentagon and place them under the national intelligence director. Nevertheless, under Bush's proposal yesterday, the director would have veto power over how these agencies allocate funds, select personnel, and set priorities.

Bush's remedy would also establish a Cabinet-level advisory panel to assist the director in ''setting requirements, financial management, establishing uniform intelligence policies, and monitoring and evaluating performance of the intelligence community," according to the administration fact sheet.

But Bush's Democratic rival, who has called for adopting in full the 9/11 panel'srecommendations, criticized the president for taking what he called ''half measures."

''If George W. Bush were serious about intelligence reform, he'd stop taking half measures and wholeheartedly endorse the 9/11 Commission recommendations and work for their immediate passage by Congress," Senator John F. Kerry said in a statement.

Bush's announcement came a day after a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate submitted their own legislation to enact many of the more than three dozen changes recommended by the 9/11 panel in July, and on Capitol Hill, the president's announcement was welcomed by lawmakers in both parties.

''I think the president made a very significant announcement, which is that the administration will support strong budgetary authority for the national intelligence director," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, said at a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing where Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller testified on intelligence reforms.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called Bush's move a ''turning point" that could help push the issue through Congress.

Others have proposed more radical changes, most notably Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who has called for breaking up the CIA and Pentagon intelligence agencies and assigning their duties to new agencies.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been given jurisdiction over the final reform package, plans to draft a final bill by the end of the month.

Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, also lauded the president, saying in a statement: ''This bipartisan meeting was a welcome change from the normally divisive and partisan Washington atmosphere. President Bush and Congress have a duty to act decisively in a bipartisan manner before Congress adjourns for the November election on this issue of paramount importance to our nation."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com

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