President Bush urged creation of a national intelligence director Monday to coordinate the war on terrorism but without the sweeping powers for hiring, firing and spending at the CIA, FBI and other agencies as recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.
"We're a nation in danger," Bush said in a White House Rose Garden appearance where he announced his support for a national intelligence chief and the establishment of a national center to plan counterterror operations in the United States and abroad. "We're doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger."
While Congress works on legislation to create the new intelligence director post, the president will tell the CIA director to tap all the authority he has under current law to manage the nation's 15 spy agencies, a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
The official would not speculate about who would be put in charge of carrying this out.
He said Bush might name acting CIA director John McLaughlin to the job, and later, after the new post is created, would nominate him or someone else to be America's first national intelligence director. The president also needs to fill the CIA director's slot by picking McLaughlin, who's been warming the seat since George Tenet resigned in June, or someone new.
"`I expect he'll have more to say on that soon," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Bush's announcement showed his determination to keep what polls show is a substantial advantage over Democratic rival John Kerry on the issue of fighting terrorism. Kerry's aides said Bush's appearance and a new terror warning covering financial institutions in New York, Washington and New Jersey was an example of the president's ability to control the campaign agenda.
Kerry said Bush should act more quickly.
"I regret that the president seems to have no sense of urgency to make America as safe as it needs to be," said Kerry, who has endorsed all of the commission's 40 or so recommendations. He said it had taken Bush three years to deal with changes, "some of them very obvious."
Brushing aside a recommendation from Kerry, Bush said he had no plans to summon Congress back into a special session this summer to address the proposed changes. "They can think about them over August and come back and act on them in September," said Bush.
The creation of a national intelligence director and counterterrorism center were the central recommendations of the independent commission to strengthen the nation's fight against terrorism. In a scathing report, the commission said intelligence and law enforcement agencies mishandled clues that might have led them to the Sept. 11 attackers. The report warned that the nation was still at substantial risk, and panel members urged the president and Congress to embrace their recommendations in full.
Commission leaders welcomed Bush's announcement as "an important step in the process of reorganizing the U.S. government for a new era."
"We look forward to discussions with the administration and with Congress about the substance of these ideas," Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton said in a statement. "The president has stated some of his goals for that process. The fate of these reform ideas turns vitally on the specifics."
Kean and Hamilton also welcomed "Senator Kerry's unequivocal endorsement of the commission's recommendations."
Bush rejected the panel's recommendation that the director control all intelligence budgets, and have the authority to choose who would lead the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies. The president also turned aside the commission's idea for placing both the counterterrorism center and the director within the White House.
"I don't think that person ought to be a member of my Cabinet," Bush said. "I will hire the person, and I can fire the person. ... I don't think that the office ought to be in the White House, however.
"I think it ought to be a stand-alone group, to better coordinate, particularly between foreign intelligence and domestic intelligence matters."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned Bush's decision. "The power and authority given to these new entities will determine whether these changes actually fix the problem or make it worse," he said. If the new director cannot control the budgets of intelligence agencies, he said, "this new position will be no more than window dressing."
Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, said that keeping the new director and center out of the White House would spare them from "undue pressure of a White House staff or White House activity."
Card said that the national intelligence director would have "an awful lot of clout, an awful lot of power" even though he lacked the authority to set the budget for individual intelligence agencies. The Defense Department and Homeland Security Department both have budgets and have to go through a process that includes a review by the Office of Management and Budget. "And that should be the same for the national intelligence director," Card said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the White House had a responsibility to the survivors of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks to act more quickly.
"President Bush is doing what has long been recommended," she said. "Why has it taken three years?
Bush also urged Congress to change how lawmakers oversee the intelligence services. "There are too many committees with overlapping jurisdiction, which wastes time and makes it difficult for meaningful oversight and reform," he said.
The president defended his record on homeland security, saying the administration has refocused the FBI on terror threats, created the Department of Homeland Security, set up the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and worked to ensure a "seamless spread of information throughout our government."