Sept. 11 commission weighs reorganizing federal agencies

The commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is considering a host of proposals to reorganize federal agencies, including a controversial plan to create a domestic intelligence agency that would conduct surveillance of people in the United States.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States completed two days of hearings last week with current and former senior government officials. The hearings at times were contentious and partisan. Beneath the surface, however, were specific recommendations for overhauling federal agencies that the commission will take into account when issuing its final report at the end of July.

Some of the more prominent options the commission is considering include:

  • Consolidating domestic and foreign intelligence collection and analysis activities.
  • Creating a domestic intelligence service.
  • Naming a director of national intelligence.
  • Transferring counterterrorism authority from the CIA to U.S. Special Operations Command.
  • Streamlining the confirmation process for administration appointees.
  • Expanding the federal commitment to public diplomacy and outreach.
Senior officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations testified during the hearings, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet, as well as Samuel Berger, former assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs, and Richard Clarke, former chief of counterterrorism.

"[This] commission has an important opportunity," Rumsfeld told members of the panel. "Those in government are, of necessity, focused on dozens of issues. Commissions, however, can step back and focus on one thing, get it right and provide insights that can be of great value."

One of the most controversial options discussed at the hearings is the creation of a domestic intelligence service. According to various witnesses, the FBI and the CIA had information about the hijackers prior to the attacks, but did not share it with each or with other agencies, such as the State Department and Federal Aviation Administration. Commission members indicated that they consider breaking down the walls between domestic and foreign intelligence activities one of their primary goals.

"I think we have to consider establishing a domestic intelligence organization distinct from law enforcement and subject to appropriate control, regulation and oversight," Cohen said.

Clarke added that, "in a perfect world," the new service would be separate from the FBI. Given current structures and constraints, he proposed the service start under the FBI and then become an autonomous agency as quickly as possible. He also noted concerns about creating the agency.

"I am very fearful that such an agency would have potential to infringe on our civil liberties, and therefore I think we would have to take extraordinary steps to have active oversight of such an agency," he said. "And we'd have to explain to the American people in a very compelling way why they needed a domestic intelligence service, because I think most Americans would be fearful of a secret police in the United States. But frankly, the FBI culture, the FBI organization, the FBI personnel are not the best we could do in this country for a domestic intelligence service."

Berger agreed that a domestic intelligence service is needed, but believes the government also should name a director of national intelligence "with authority to plan, program and budget for intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination." He suggested the new director should be responsible for coordinating intelligence activities with other countries to eliminate having separate U.S. intelligence agencies develop their own relationships with foreign counterparts.

Berger argued that overall policy coordination for counterterrorism should rest with the national security adviser. The government should have a single national security budget that includes all military, homeland security, diplomatic and economic resources available to deal with threats, Berger said.

Rumsfeld argued against the centralization of powers and appointment of what he termed "a single intelligence czar." Instead, he said "multiple centers of information have proven to be better at promoting creativity and challenging conventional thinking."

"If one believes it could be necessary to centralize all intelligence under a single intelligence czar to improve national intelligence, then one can argue…equally forcefully that it is necessary to centralize all intelligence under the Department of Defense to improve military intelligence," he said. "Either course would be a major mistake and could damage our country's intelligence capability severely."

According to Rumsfeld, the government should examine whether laws and regulations that govern the gathering of intelligence are outdated, given new technology, and restrict information sharing between law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The Defense secretary also backed the preservation of the "unique relationship" between the director of central intelligence and Defense secretary. "As each year goes by, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between information that contributes to national intelligence versus information that is necessary for military intelligence and focuses on the battlefield," he said.

In their respective testimonies, Rumsfeld and Berger said the commission should examine whether federal agencies could benefit from something like the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which required the individual military services to work together in an unprecedented way.

"Should we ask whether it might be appropriate for the various departments and agencies to do what the services did two decades ago: give up some of their existing turf and authority in exchange for a stronger, faster, more efficient governmentwide joint effort?" Rumsfeld asked.

Several other options for reorganizing federal agencies were discussed during the hearings:

  • Commission member John Lehman, former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, said maybe the primary authority for counterterrorism and covert operations should be taken away from the CIA and given to U.S. Special Operations Command. He said the commission's staff is examining whether the Title 50 responsibilities of the CIA and Title 10 responsibilities of the Defense Department are "obsolete."
  • Rumsfeld said the commission should consider streamlining the confirmation process for administration officials. Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste also said the panel should make recommendations for institutionalizing the transition process within intelligence agencies between presidential administrations, especially in the area of information sharing.
  • Tenet said the country "must have a defense that links visa measures, border security, infrastructure protection and domestic warnings in a way that increases security, closes gaps and serves a society that demands a high level of safety and freedom." However, when asked whether the CIA should have some jurisdiction in the United States, Tenet said "absolutely not; under no circumstance."
  • Albright said a primary problem for the country is that U.S. foreign policy is either opposed or misunderstood by much of the world. She said a long-range counterterrorism plan should include the comprehensive reform of intelligence structures; an expanded commitment to public diplomacy and outreach, especially within the Arab and Muslim worlds; a bolder strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan; revised policies toward Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; expansion of the 1991 Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program to secure weapons of mass destruction materials on a global basis; a new approach to handling and sharing information concerning terrorist suspects; and a change in the tone of American national security policy, to emphasize the value of diplomatic cooperation.
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