Way to Go…Or Is It?

The recommendations of the presidential commission on intelligence reform make for great briefings, and this past week President Bush’s impressive homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, gave a dandy.

The president gave Townsend – whose resume ranges from mob prosecutor to chief of intelligence for the Coast Guard – 90 days to ramrod the commission recommendations through the CIA, FBI, Justice Department and assorted other intelligence bureaucracies, all the while coordinating with the new director of national intelligence.

And Townsend appears she has done it with days to spare. Congress needs to approve some of the changes and there are still a few loose ends, but the basic organizational table is complete. Among the high points:

  • The new post of assistant attorney general for national security to oversee the Justice Department’s counterterrorism and counterespionage units.
  • Creation within the FBI of a new National Security Service, responsible for both intelligence and counterintelligence, headed by a senior official who will report directly to both the FBI director and the DNI. There are some who think this service should be broken out of the bureau.
  • The DNI, veteran diplomat John Negroponte, is establishing a National Counter Proliferation Center to consolidate government efforts to stop the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
  • Established within the CIA a senior official in charge of human intelligence, all the government’s spies. This falls short of the commission’s recommendation that it be a separate directorate within the CIA.
  • Confirmed the DNI’s budget authority over the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the intelligence units of State, Treasury and Energy.

The only commission recommendation the Bush administration rejected was to give the Pentagon a covert operations capacity.

While there is disagreement over specifics, there is broad agreement in the capital that these intelligence reforms are the way to go. Still, there are real privacy and civil liberties concerns about these reforms. Both the FBI and CIA have checkered histories when it comes to respecting the rights of dissidents and protest groups.

There will be the inevitable bureaucratic teething problems, but these reforms should be given a decent chance to work. However, it is imperative that this new, large and sweeping apparatus be subject to continuous congressional oversight and periodic review by the kind of independent commission that led to its creation.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)