On second thought…

The national intelligence director has yet to take office and already members of Congress are looking to change his job.

To some, last year’s intelligence overhaul bill, making the most significant changes in 50 years, was much-needed medicine for spying blunders spread throughout 15 often competitive agencies. To others, it was an election-year rush job.

“I just don’t think the reform package that we put together made all of the reforms necessary,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Monday. “It was the first step in the right direction.”

Chambliss and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., will introduce legislation this week to give the new national intelligence director one point of contact – a joint military command – to handle communications with the eight defense intelligence agencies that he’ll oversee.

The December enactment of the overhaul has touched off an extensive debate among current and former federal officials about whether President Bush’s national intelligence director-nominee – Iraq Ambassador John Negroponte – will be able to succeed given the ambiguities in the law.

The Senate plans to hold a confirmation hearing for Negroponte next month.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates, who served for Bush’s father, acknowledged recently that the legislation creates a “rather steep hill” for the intelligence director, but said he doesn’t think the job is impossible because the director will have the authority to dole out huge amounts of the intelligence budget, estimated at $40 billion annually.

Still, Gates said, that authority won’t enable the director to act delicately when maneuvering within the intelligence bureaucracy. “The federal government has no fine motor skills, just like a dinosaur,” Gates recently told a group of U.S. counterintelligence professionals gathered for a conference.

Critics say the intelligence reform law was hustled through under the political glare of the election year. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who served during the Clinton administration, said he’s concerned the reorganization was a “political fix.”

“I don’t think John is going to be able to do this,” Holbrooke said of Negroponte, his friend and one-time roommate in Vietnam when they were diplomatic officers there.

The law gives the new director the authority to manage the national foreign intelligence programs, but leaves it to defense officials to take the lead on tactical intelligence used for military operations. The arrangement will require close coordination between the director and defense officials.

Gates and others have noted that the law doesn’t give the director the power to hire and fire officials outside his office. Nor is it precise about the relationships among intelligence agency heads, leading CIA Director Porter Goss to say in a rare public appearance this month that the bill has a “huge amount of ambiguity.”

Goss said he didn’t know “by law” what his direct relationship will be with Negroponte, the defense secretary and other top intelligence officials.

Federal executives at the Pentagon, White House and elsewhere have been considering how senior intelligence officials will work with the new director. The intelligence community is also reviewing the legislation to see if there are changes to propose, an intelligence official said Monday, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

Chambliss and Nelson are trying to clarify one piece of the reform law: how the new director will interact with the eight intelligence agencies at the Pentagon, ranging from Army intelligence to the code-breakers at the National Security Agency.

The senators are proposing a joint military command led by a four-star officer who would be the point of contact for the national intelligence chief.

That commander would also serve as the chief adviser to the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs on all intelligence issues, for the first time creating a unified command for military intelligence akin to the structure used to coordinate the special operations of Delta Force, the Green Berets and other highly trained military outfits.

© 2005 The Associated Press