Overhaul of US intelligence creates new supremo to lead terror defence

Click to follow
The Independent US

The United States Congress was poised to give approval last night to the most sweeping overhaul of intelligence in half a century, designed to ensure that an intelligence disaster like 11 September 2001 never occurs again.

Congress was last night poised to give final approval to the most sweeping overhaul of US intelligence in half a century, designed to ensure that an intelligence disaster like September 11 2001 never occurs again.

The plan, passed by the House of Representatives by 336 votes to 75 and set for even bigger majority in the Senate, will place the CIA and the country’s dozen other (and often competing) intelligence agencies under a single new Director of National Intelligence.

He will have overall control of the $40bn annual US intelligence budget, and oversee a new national counter-terrorism centre. The bill also provides for 10,000 more border guards over the next five years, as well as 4,000 extra immigration officers.

Rules will be tightened on the issue on the issue of driving licences - easily obtained by the 9/11 hijackers, and which greatly facilitated their stay in the US before the attacks. Security arrangements for civil aviation will be further strengthened.

Despite intense pressure from the 9/11 victims’ families, and broad bipartisan backing for the bill, which basically turns into law the key recommendations of last summer’s report by the Commission into how the attacks happened, its passage has proved surprisingly tricky.

Only heavy pressure from the White House quelled surprise objections from senior House Republicans – a resistance that came close to a direct challenge to President George W. Bush’s authority – just days after he had been re-elected to a second term.

To bring around dissenters, House and Senate negotiators scrambled to find a new form of words to meet complaints that the new intelligence structure would delay the transmission of crucial, time-sensitive military intelligence to commanders in the field.

Even that however failed to satisfy powerful foes like James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who opposed passage of the final bill, arguing it did not do enough to tighten immigration controls. Mr Sensenbrenner says he will bring in his own bill when the new Congress assembles in January.

Even the existing measure raises almost as many questions as it answers, with critics saying there is no guarantee it will achieve its main aim of making the country safer.

Candidates for the new DNI are already being canvassed, among them the current director of the CIA Porter Goss, the former Democratic Presidential and vice-Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor and head of the 9/11 commission.

But the practical clout of the DNI post is unclear. The new intelligence supremo will not directly run any of the separate agencies, not even the CIA, whose chief is theoretically in overall charge of US intelligence now.

He will be a presidential appointee, but he will not have control of military intelligence spending – roughly a third of the total – that will remain the preserve of the Pentagon.

Instead, critics contend, the reform will simply add another level of bureaucracy, increasing the risk of turf battles and other infighting between various government agencies.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, is one of master of these dark arts, and has never hidden his dislike of surrendering the Pentagon’s current control of 80 per cent of the intelligence budget. This notably includes the National Security Agency, and its multi-billion dollar eavesdropping and electronic surveillance operation.

The hope is that a unified intelligence structure will lead to greater co-operation between the various agencies, and thus prevent a repeat of the compartmentalisation of information that prevented anyone from “connecting the dots” between the various clues available before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The bill also calls for harsher penalties for smuggling illegal immigrants into the US, and the automatic deportation of non-Americans who ever received training from a terrorist organisation. All US visa applicants will be required to undergo in-person interviews.

More money will be allocated to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. The measure will also provide more support for s-called ‘public diplomacy’ aimed at explaining US policies and reducing anti-Americanism across the Islamic world.