Members of the 9/11 Commission have told Congress a proposed new National Director of Intelligence must have sufficient authority to lead the nation's intelligence-gathering system. Lawmakers also heard an emotional appeal from family members of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
With unusual hearings during a summer recess, House and Senate lawmakers have begun the process that will culminate in legislation to implement key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
However, the question is how soon they will do this, and to what extent their actions will diverge from the more than 40 key commission recommendations.
With the November congressional and presidential elections looming, House and Senate members are under great pressure to act by late September or early October.
Although they support the commission call for a National Intelligence Director, and a new National Counterterrorism Center, lawmakers are skeptical about steps that will create yet another level of bureaucracy.
"As we move with both deliberation and speed, we should use the commission's recommendations as a thoughtful and informed guide," said Republican Senator Susan Collins. "That does not mean that this committee will be a rubber stamp. The final shape of our restructuring legislation will be determined by what we learn at these hearings."
One 9/11 Commission member, former Senator Bob Kerrey, told the House Government Reform Committee Tuesday it would be better not to have a new National Intelligence Director at all, than to have one lacking the authority to be effective.
"If all it is is consultative, if all it is is advisory, then you're better off not doing it," he said. "You're better off not taking action if the action produces another agency that doesn't have real statutory authority."
Commission member John Lehman, a former Secretary of the Navy, shares the view and says equal attention must be given to reorganizing the way Congress exercises its oversight of government intelligence activities.
"The rest of the system that we're recommending will not function properly without Congress fixing its own committee structure and jurisdiction," he said.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to creation of the huge Department of Homeland Security, and a multi-agency Terrorist Threat Integration Center.
In Tuesday's hearings, lawmakers wondered what a proposed National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) proposed by the 9/11 Commission would accomplish.
Philip Zelikow, staff director of the 9/11 Commission, said its recommendations represent "21st century strategies to deal with 21st century threats," and urged lawmakers not to settle for less.
"We wish to caution, as Chairman Kean and Vice Chair Hamilton did last Friday, against cosmetic change," he said. "Creating a National Intelligence Director that just superimposes a chief above the other chiefs without taking on the fundamental management issues we identify is a step that could be worse than useless."
In a separate hearing Tuesday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee heard from officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Homeland Security.
Philip Mudd, deputy director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, was among those cautioning against measures that create other problems.
"I embrace the [9/11] panel recommendations. I think the National Intelligence director is a good idea," he said. "[But] I do think there is a question that has to be answered about the difference between coordination and direction and I think that is something Congress, and the White House and others, the acting [CIA] director, should work on in coming weeks."
It was left to family members of victims of the September 11 attacks to drive home the significance of the steps Congress is considering.
Beverly Eckert, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center, urged lawmakers to set aside partisan election year interests as they move toward implementing 9/11 Commission recommendations.
"There are 41 recommendations contained in the 9/11 Commission report. Neither the family steering committee, nor the American people, will let those recommendations suffer the same fate as those of past commissions. There is no shelf on which they can be hidden," she said. "You and the rest of Congress are very much in the spotlight as I'm sure you are all keenly aware and you will be held accountable by the people for your actions or inactions, as will the White House."
Family members say they intend to closely track Congress' response to the 9/11 Commission recommendations.
As Mrs. Eckert put it, in a reference to hearings being held during a congressional summer recess, "There is no recess from terrorism."