Appoint an intelligence director

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Forced by congressional Republicans, mainly, to make a significant shift in his position, President Bush now says he supports the creation of a national intelligence director with “full budgetary authority.” Bush’s shift removes any excuse for not promptly enacting and signing a law making meaningful changes in the way this country collects and uses intelligence.

The latest move for legislative reform of intelligence began in July, with the release of a report by the commission that investigated the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The 9-11 commission made some 40 recommendations, the most notable of which was the creation of a national intelligence director to supervise the 15-odd intelligence agencies now dispersed throughout the federal government.

Given post-9-11 disclosures that these agencies have often failed to communicate — and sometimes even fought — with one another, this administrative consolidation makes eminent sense.

The commission noted that, to be effective, the new intelligence chief would have to have full control over the estimated $40 billion this country spends on intelligence every year. Absent full budgetary authority, the new intelligence chief would be a toothless tiger in Washington.

Bush has resisted intelligence reform. He opposed the creation of the 9-11 commission; he was non-committal in his initial response to its recommendations, and it was not until early August that — again, bowing to congressional pressure — he reluctantly and belatedly endorsed the creation of a national intelligence director.

But the White House stopped short of ceding budget control, Chief of Staff Andrew Card saying only that the new director would have “significant input” — a vague and highly elastic term — over the money. In now supporting “full budgetary authority,” Bush has shifted again.

Congressional support for intelligence reform has generated at least two bills in the Senate. One, introduced earlier this week by a bipartisan group of members including John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., would codify virtually all the 9-11 commission’s proposals. An even more sweeping bill was proposed in late August by Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

There is no reason for Congress to sit on its hands any longer. The 9-11 commission’s recommendations were only the most recent calls for change; intelligence reform has been scrutinized and debated by lawmakers, academic researchers and others for years.

Thus, any action by Congress can hardly be dismissed as hasty or not thought through. The risks are too great.

Congress should enact a reform bill before it adjourns as scheduled on Oct. 8.