WASHINGTON – President Bush on Friday signed executive orders designed to strengthen the CIA director’s power over the nation’s intelligence agencies and create a national counterterrorism center, responding to election-year pressures to enact changes called for by the Sept. 11 commission.
Democratic critics questioned whether Bush’s proposed changes were too modest. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said Bush had been reluctant to act and still was not doing enough.
Bush signed four separate orders before embarking on a weekend of campaign stops leading up to the Republican National Convention, which begins Monday in New York. His press secretary, Scott McClellan, said the moves will “improve our ability to find, track and stop terrorists.”
Bush’s first order gives the CIA director additional authority on an interim basis to perform many of the functions of a proposed national intelligence director, who would have increased power to oversee all 15 of the nation’s intelligence agencies. White House officials said that includes a stronger hand to set budgets.
The CIA director currently oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies, but the recent debate has focused on long-standing limitations.
Another order establishes the national counterterrorism center, and a third sets guidelines for the sharing of intelligence among agencies. A fourth order establishes a presidential board on safeguarding Americans’ civil liberties, an area of concern as the government gives law enforcement agencies more authority to battle terrorists.
The two key recommendations of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks were the creation of a strong national intelligence director and a unifying national counterterrorism center to handle intelligence.
Since the release of the commission’s report last month, debate has centered on what powers the new intelligence director should have.
The commission said the CIA director’s job of running the agency should be separated from the position’s second responsibility of overseeing the intelligence community. The panel also said the new intelligence director must be given significant power over budgets and personnel. Yet, legal experts say the president has limited power to enact major structural changes without congressional action.
McClellan said Bush plans to work with Congress to enact a law to create the national intelligence director position and make sure that it comes with enough authority over spending and hiring and firing “so they can do the job and do it effectively.”
Bush’s executive order gives the director of central intelligence all the budget power allowed by the National Security Act of 1947, which established the nation’s intelligence structure, the White House said. The order also gives the intelligence director the final say about priorities in disagreements with other powerful officials, such as the defense secretary, a senior White House official said. But the official said the defense secretary and others could appeal the intelligence chief’s decisions.
The White House described Bush’s action as a step toward creating the position of a national intelligence director, a job separate from the director of the CIA. It is up to Congress whether to change the law to create the new position. Still, the White House official stopped short of endorsing full budget authority for the proposed position, saying that was an issue to be worked on with Congress.
Congressional critics questioned if the White House was going far enough to enact the changes called for by the commission. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the orders “an interim step toward reform.”
“Will the president rise to the challenge and override turf battles to support a national intelligence director with true budget authority over the entire intelligence community? That remains an open question,” Rockefeller said.
Kerry said the White House has come to the table on changes to national security “dragging and kicking” each time. “Now they say they’re willing to embrace a director of national intelligence, but they’re not really willing to embrace it because they won’t give him budget authority,” he said.
In practice, the enhanced authority of the intelligence chief will hinge on whether the director will truly have the power to move money and people around within intelligence agencies, said former CIA Director Robert Gates. If the director can make decisions without vetoes from other intelligence leaders, “that is a significant step forward,” he said.