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Stepping on toes

Pat Roberts should have gathered support for his intelligence reorganization proposal before announcing it, but his efforts are encouraging.

Published August 27, 2004

Pat Roberts made a lot of people unhappy this week when he introduced his proposal for carving up the CIA as part of a broader reorganization of the intelligence community. Democratic congressional leaders complained that Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, failed to consult with them before announcing his plan. Fellow Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue complained that their colleague from Kansas was showing too much enthusiasm for a subject they would rather string along between now and November. And CIA officials, along with other intelligence-community bureaucrats whose authority might be diminished by the changes advocated by Roberts, issued predictable howls of protest.

All the howling is evidence that Roberts is stepping on the right toes. Even the horrors of 9/11 and the inexcusable intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq weren't traumatic enough to knock much of official Washington out of its turf-conscious complacency. Roberts may have some of the details wrong, and he should have worked to build bipartisan support for his plan before announcing it. But he has furthered the necessary effort to reform our intelligence services simply by showing that he intends to take the job seriously.

Roberts' plan bolsters the most important - and controversial - recommendation of the 9/11 commission: the creation of a national intelligence director with real authority over all 15 federal intelligence agencies. President Bush and other prominent Republicans have given general support to the commission's recommendations but have not committed themselves to the tough details. For example, the president originally balked at the commission's proposal to give the new intelligence director control over budgets and personnel. Without such power, the new office would merely add another layer of bureaucracy.

Roberts' overhaul would go even further than the commission's, splitting the CIA into three new agencies responsible for operations, analysis and technology. That part of Roberts' plan led recently departed CIA director George Tenet to mutter about a "mad rush" to reorganize the intelligence community. There's nothing slapdash about Roberts' plan, but such a dramatic assault on the CIA would provoke a bitter battle that could threaten broader reforms. It will be tough enough to win support for stripping powers from the CIA director and Defense secretary and entrusting them to a new national intelligence director. Roberts should help ensure approval of that crucial change before taking on the deeper reorganization he envisions.

In any case, Roberts has called the bluff of other Washington officials who have voiced vague support for the 9/11 commission's proposals but aren't really interested in upsetting the status quo. Members of Congress aren't eager to streamline a convoluted and corrupting oversight process. Even those intelligence officials who understand the need for reform would rather make changes internally, without outside interference. And the Bush administration is leery of any changes that dilute its authority or imply past mistakes. In contrast, Roberts seems to have his priorities in order. He's focusing on correcting the intelligence failures that compromised our security, and he's leaving the political calculations to others.

[Last modified August 27, 2004, 01:14:22]


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