WASHINGTON - President Bush told members of Congress on Wednesday he supports giving a new national intelligence director strong budgetary authority over much of the nation's intelligence community, a key provision in the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations.
Bush, in a White House meeting with congressional leaders from both parties, also said the administration would submit its own suggestions to Congress on how to change the nation's intelligence agencies to make them work better.
This comes as the Senate prepares to vote later this month on how it wants to change the intelligence community to address criticisms from the 9/11 commission that the nation's 15 different intelligence agencies did not work together properly to stop the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.
Most members of the Senate seem to be behind creating a national intelligence director to oversee nonmilitary intelligence, and many have echoed the 9/11 commission's call for that person to have the ability to hire and fire leaders of the intelligence agencies and to control the money Congress provides those agencies.
The White House had not previously openly endorsed that aspect of the commission's recommendations.
Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin repeated his assertion that the CIA director position could do everything that Congress wants the national intelligence director to do if lawmakers just gave the position additional powers.
"Nonetheless, now that the president has committed to create a national intelligence director, my sole interest is in ensuring that such an individual can succeed," said McLaughlin, who also called for Congress to give the new director expanded hiring, firing and budgetary power.
FBI Director Robert Mueller echoed that call before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, even though it would mean part of the FBI's budget would also be controlled by the new national intelligence director.
Bush says he supports efforts to reform the intelligence community.
"Our intelligence budget, the expanding intelligence budget, should be controlled by the NID," Mueller said. "I think there ought to be one appropriation. There ought to be one intelligence budget under the auspices of the NID," including "that portion of the FBI that addresses intelligence."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is writing the legislation the Senate will consider, said the Bush administration "will support strong budgetary authority for the national intelligence director, certainly over what is called the national foreign intelligence program, which constitutes well over half, in fact well beyond that, of the intelligence budget of our government. That is a very significant step."
Besides budgetary control, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., wants Congress to transfer the nation's major intelligence gathering from the CIA and the Pentagon to control by a new national intelligence director.
Some people have opposed the idea, with Roberts saying Tuesday his plan "has been deemed by some as radical and others as bold - not as many 'bold' as 'radical.'"
But former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, did not reject the idea when asked about it at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, calling the idea "a very bold move. It's a lot bolder than we made."
The commission wanted "achievable and pragmatic" goals, and didn't consider change on the scope that Roberts did, Hamilton said Tuesday.
"We just didn't look at it that boldly," Hamilton said. "What we said was the NID needs to control the budget of these groups and we thought that was sufficient. And we did not recommend pulling these agencies out of the DoD because we thought that was too much of a change."
Some lawmakers started a push Tuesday for Congress to adopt all the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations for revamping the intelligence community.
"This bill would enact bold and comprehensive reform that changes the status quo, because the status quo in intelligence and diplomacy has failed us," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who introduced the 280-page bill along with Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., will introduce a House version.