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Experts Urge Caution in Implementing US Anti-Terror Reforms - 2004-08-04

Experts have told a congressional committee there should be no rush to implement reforms called for by the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The experts told committee members Wednesday that rushing into some changes could weaken the country's intelligence operations.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence usually meets behind closed doors, but publicity surrounding the report of the 9/11 Commission thrust this particular session into the public spotlight.

Congressman Porter Goss, still mentioned as a possible director of the Central Intelligence Agency, opened the hearing noting the continuing threat to the United States from terrorists.

Whatever changes his committee ends up proposing in the form of legislation, Mr. Goss says they should not complicate ongoing intelligence-gathering efforts.

"These are extraordinary times, and while we will act with all appropriate speed, we have a responsibility to ensure that the changes the committee ultimately proposes improve our security, enhance the functioning of the intelligence community, and improve the ability of our policymakers to make well-informed decisions," he said. "We cannot afford to make changes blindly, or in unnecessary haste. We can ill afford to rush to judgment any more than we can tolerate needless delay."

In endorsing some key 9/11 Commission recommendations, President Bush supported a call for a new National Intelligence Director (DNI).

Similar recommendations were made earlier this year in Democrat-sponsored legislation seeking wide-ranging intelligence reforms, a bill that was blocked by congressional Republicans.

Since then, Congresswoman Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has criticized Mr. Goss and Republicans, accusing them of taking a go-slow approach on reform, an allegation she renewed on Wednesday.

"I am worried about how slow this committee is proceeding," she said. "The time for action is now."

That brought angry responses from several Republicans, who urged caution in how Congress approaches implementing aspects of the 9/11 Commission report, among them Congressmen Sherwood Boehlert.

"People say, we've got all the answers to all the questions, now let's go forward instantly, reconvene Congress tomorrow, pass it, and our problems are solved. That's not the way it works," Mr. Boehlert said.

Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican, also endorses a cautious approach.

"I don't think there is, nor should there be, a headlong rush to create a weaker, more ambiguous less defined intelligence agency through some nomenclature about who is going to be in charge of what. I think we have to be thoughtful and creative and concise in what we do, and I think that is going to take time," he said.

John Hamre, a former deputy Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, is concerned a new Director of National Intelligence will lack authority, and end up weakening what he calls the decades-old central role played by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

"To be honest, if we pick it up where it [the proposal] was left [by President Bush] on Monday, we're going to get a weak DNI and a weaker CIA, and that is not going to be good. So, I think we need to think about this pretty carefully," he said.

Mr. Hamre and others strongly oppose the proposal to place the new intelligence director in the White House, echoing similar concerns expressed in other House and Senate hearings.

Former National Security Agency Director, William Odom, also urges caution.

"I think the odds of taking such a big step, and getting it right with a draft [of legislation] up here [in Congress], are very poor," said Mr. Odom.

Other witnesses, as well as some lawmakers, addressed the 9/11 Commission observation that any new intelligence structure needs to encourage imaginative thinking about terrorist threats.

"We need a way to structure and constrain and channel our imagination because not every possibility that we can think of is equally plausible or equally worth preparing against," said Michael O'Hanlon, an expert in intelligence and defense issues at the Brookings Institution.

Also appearing at Wednesday's House intelligence committee hearing, the last this week on the 9/11 Commission report, were a number of officials from the CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department.

Even though Congress officially remains on summer recess, no fewer than eight additional hearings are scheduled next week by House committees, in addition to others planned in the Senate.