A U.S. Senate panel has begun hearings into recommendations by the September 11th commission aimed at improving the nation's ability to prevent terror attacks.
With U.S. officials warning of another possible terrorist attack on the United States this year, the chairwoman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee underscored the sense of urgency as she opened Friday's hearing.
"We must act with speed, but not in haste," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. "We must be bold, but we must not be reckless."
The Senate panel is focusing on two key recommendations of the commission, creating a national director of intelligence and a national counter-terrorism center to coordinate the gathering and sharing of intelligence.
The commission's Republican chairman, Thomas Kean, described a series of intelligence failures in the months leading up to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. He said the failures were the result of a serious lack of coordination in the intelligence community. He said the solution to the problem is the kind of intelligence reorganization proposed by his commission.
"We came to a conclusion, all 10 of us, from what we studied, that the present system is unacceptable and does not work," he said. "It is just that simple, just not work. The American people will be less safe if we simply continue in the present structure than if we move to the kind of structure we have suggested."
But Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, is reluctant to embrace the commission's proposal to establish a national intelligence director at the White House who reports directly to the president.
Mr. Levin, who questions whether the Bush administration manipulated intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to make the case for going to war in that country, does not believe the commission's proposal would yield an independent analysis of intelligence.
He made his point as he questioned commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a fellow Democrat.
"How does putting the director even closer to the policymaker do anything other than to make this problem even more difficult," he asked.
"I think it is a tremendous problem," Mr. Hamilton replied. "I think all of us recognize that the separation of intelligence and policy is very important. Those of us who have dealt with it also know that it is impossible to achieve completely. You are always going to have interaction here."
Mr. Hamilton says similar concerns were raised when the U.S. military was reorganized under a 1986 law. But he said such concerns were unfounded, and since then, branches of the military have operated smoothly under a single, unified command to ensure coordination. He said he believes the same will be true with the reorganization of the intelligence community.
On another issue, commission chairman Thomas Kean underscored his panel's proposal for the United States to strengthen diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their governments are providing crucial help to the United States in the war on terror.
"They are our three most important relationships at this point," he said. "If any of those were to change drastically in the wrong direction, this country would have very, very serious problems in the region. We do recommend very special work in the area of diplomacy, not just military, area of diplomacy, cultural exchanges, educational help, in particular those three countries."
The al-Qaida terrorist network has been blamed for the 2001 attacks. Members of al-Qaida, including leader Osama bin Laden, are believed to be operating in the mountainous border region of Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. In addition, 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 2001 attacks were from Saudi Arabia.
The Senate Government Affairs Committee is to hold another hearing on the commission's recommendations Tuesday.
The House of Representatives also has scheduled a number of hearings on the matter during the month of August.