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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Bush push needed on 9/11 reform

WASHINGTON
FOR THE second time since the 9/11 attacks, President Bush has been caught with his political pants down on a subject central to the war against terrorism.

It took him months before he agreed that central authority beats divided authority when it comes to homeland security, and it has taken him even longer to understand that a pre-9/11 intelligence community with fragmented authority is unacceptably unresponsive to today's threats.

The president is said to be prepared to lean on his Republican pals who run the House of Representatives to allow a December vote on a new structure.

I'm not so sure. He had his chance when Congress began its postelection work this month after the election and blew it. In the heady glow of reelection, all he was asked to do was press for a vote; the compromise measure, everyone agrees, would have cleared the House easily. Against a modicum of effort by Bush, the positions of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay would be untenable. As it is, Bush is giving lip service to reorganization but through his passivity is in fact helping Hastert and DeLay support the military-dominated status quo via chairman Duncan Hunter of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman F. James Sensenbrenner of the House Judiciary Committee.

Publicly they are using two convenient straw men as justification. Hunter is focusing on issues relating to the military chain of command, as if civilians were trying to interfere with the flow of tactical information to military units in the field; this enables him to use "support the troops" as a smoke screen. Sensenbrenner is pushing an even hotter button -- anti-immigrant sentiment -- in insisting on a federal ban on state issuance of driver's licenses to illegals.

Politically, the rationale heard in the Capitol's corridors is a window on the operations of the DeLay machine in Congress. The argument is that a vote was blocked this month because it would have split Republicans, requiring Democratic votes for the reorganization's approval.

In legislative politics, this is how the status quo -- in this case, a fragmented intelligence world where more than three of every four dollars flows through the military -- is maintained. The national interest in a more centralized system with someone actually in charge of intelligence and its use in the multifront war against terror is thus frustrated unless a president vigorously asserts it.

The classic symptom of Washingtonitis is the investing of momentous importance in matters that directly affect only government officials and politicians, and the classic example is anything involving a reorganization of some national bureaucracy.

The trick is in knowing when the occasional exception is for real.

The current tempest over the intelligence community is just such an exception, but for a reason that has been ignored in the fighting over turf, authority and budgets and in the embarrassing split between the Bush administration and the Republican-ruled House of Representatives.

Changing the structure of the intelligence business is vital. Throughout the Cold War and in its immediate aftermath, intelligence was primarily a function of military preparedness -- collecting the information essential to the nation's defense against countries with hostile intentions.

That has all changed because of the direct threat to this country from terrorism. Because the United States has been attacked and will be under threat of attack for the foreseeable future, intelligence gathering and analysis has become far more than simply military, and it will not succeed in this war if its control is primarily military. It must be broader than that because that is the nature of the war itself.

That is also the principal lesson from the events leading up to the attacks three years ago. The 9/11 commission's unanimous findings and recommendation four months ago was that fragmentation of intelligence and counterterrorism machinery was directly related to the success of the attacks; the commission's cochairmen, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, assert that fragmentation will also help the inevitable next terrorist attempt.

They are being frustrated, however, because the military's addiction to the status quo has been permitted in the House to derail reorganization. This is an example of how the still endless fighting in Iraq has warped US priorities against the larger threat of terrorism.

Only Bush can set things right because only Bush is ultimately responsible for the derailment.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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