Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, made their remarks during a hearing on making the intelligence community more agile to fight terrorism and emerging threats.
Both senators were part of a group of lawmakers that met Wednesday with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss intelligence reform.
"There have been many, many improvements," Collins said at the hearing, which featured testimony from the heads of the FBI and CIA. "But we have not yet transformed an intelligence community designed for the Cold War into one with the agility to respond to threats that range from nuclear missiles in North Korea to an al Qaeda operative on a highway in Maryland."
"Institutional change is needed and must be written into law," Lieberman added. The hearing was the committee's sixth on the recommendations of an independent panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, with more hearings to come.
To illustrate the consequences of poor intelligence sharing, Collins described a series of events on Sept. 8, 2001, including a traffic stop of one of the 9/11 hijackers and an FBI memo about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, that would have hinted at the terrorist strikes if officials had access at the time to more data -- or had bothered to investigate the evidence before them.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said the bureau should centralize its intelligence gathering and then disseminate its findings to other agencies. Within the FBI, that central role falls to the intelligence office, he said.
He noted that the 9/11 Commission recommended a national counter-terrorism center as the next "logical step" to improving cooperation among the intelligence, national security and law enforcement communities, and that President Bush issued an executive order to establish it. The center will build on the work of the existing Terrorism Threat Integration Center, he said.
Acting Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin said that while today's intelligence community has a "stronger foundation" than before the 2001 attacks, "we can still do better." The perception of the intelligence agencies as unwilling to relinquish turf or share information is simply not accurate, he said.
"Speed and agility are the keys to winning in the war on terrorism," he said, adding that those goals require "the right tools to do the job." He cited as an example the anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act, which critics argue curbs civil liberties.
Mueller also praised the act, saying Congress should renew it because it provides law enforcement with vital tools to fight terrorism. The hearing also focused heavily on the possible creation of a national intelligence director.