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Inside Politics

Bush backs budget power for national intelligence czar

President, lawmakers confer on proposals to overhaul system


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Wednesday that he supported the idea of a national director of intelligence with total budget authority.

Bush met at the White House with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including the House and Senate leadership and key committee leaders to discuss proposals to overhaul the U.S. intelligence community.

The intelligence budget is currently split between 15 agencies.

Bush said he would submit a plan to Congress to strengthen intelligence reform, including the creation of the national intelligence director post.

A administration official said Bush will discuss with congressional leaders his support of "a single appropriation for the entire intelligence budget directed at the NID level."

"I look forward to working with the members [of Congress] to get a bill to my desk as soon as possible," Bush said.

The president previously had indicated that he supported limited budgetary authority for a national intelligence director.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said it remains to be seen what Bush's change of heart really means.

"The president didn't even indicate that it was a change of mind, but he did say he supported it and the budgetary authority," she said at a news conference later.

"In what manner do they support budgetary authority going to the national intelligence director? That remains for us to see in print, on paper, for us to make a judgment about it."

Sen. John Kerry's campaign noted the president's earlier opposition to the creation of such a post and to giving that office budgetary control.

"If George W. Bush were serious about intelligence reform, he'd stop taking half-measures and wholeheartedly endorse the 9/11 commission recommendations and work for their immediate passage by Congress," the campaign said in a statement.

The president said it's important the United States get its "intelligence gathering correct."

"After all, we're still at war. We've got to find the enemy before they hurt us. We've got to do everything we can to protect the homeland," he said.

"We're chasing down these killers overseas so we don't have to face them here at home. We're making good progress."

Wednesday's meeting came a day after Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut introduced a bill that would implement the 41 recommendations made by the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Those proposals would include the creation of a national intelligence director post and the strengthening of border and transportation security.

Lieberman is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which is set to hear testimony Wednesday from FBI Director Robert Muller and acting CIA Director John McLaughlin.

The panel is scheduled to hold two hearings next week on the 9/11 panel's recommendations.

Lieberman said his committee hopes to mark up the bill the week of September 20 and have it ready for action before September 27.

He said he hopes the Senate will have a bill passed by the beginning of October -- even if it doesn't include all 41 proposals.

"I think we're going to get this done before anybody thinks about breaking for the campaign or the election," said Lieberman, who was a presidential hopeful earlier this year.

Among the major provisions of the legislation are the creation of a national intelligence authority -- which would operate independent of the White House and have budget authority, the creation of a national counterterrorism center to pool intelligence information from several agencies, and the strengthening of transportation security and screening.

The bill also would order the development of an extensive information-sharing network to distribute homeland security information among federal, state and local governments, and make it harder for terrorists to acquire fraudulent birth certificates and driver's licenses, Lieberman said.

McCain said another important part of the bill is the call to overhaul congressional oversight abilities and functions.

"And despite a short and crowded legislative calendar and the fact that this is an election year, I believe we must take legislative action and action within the Congress to reorganize our oversight responsibilities," he said.

"I want to emphasis again, Gov. [Thomas] Kean and Congressman [Lee] Hamilton pointed out that congressional oversight also was a major contributor to our failures prior to 9/11, and that has to be fixed as well," McCain added, referring to the 9/11 committee's chairman and vice chairman.

Lieberman acknowledged the legislative road ahead may not be smooth.

"There are going to be differences of opinion about these proposals, because the 9/11 commission has recommended and this bill would enact bold and comprehensive reform that changes the status quo, because the status quo in intelligence and diplomacy has failed us," he said.

McCain commended the president for the reforms he already has enacted through executive order but said Bush has gone as far as his authority will allow.

Last month, Bush signed executive orders that created a national counterintelligence center and gave the CIA director more authority. (Bush beefs up CIA chief's power)

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has proposed a sweeping reorganization of U.S. intelligence operations that would retool the CIA and the Pentagon's intelligence agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office. (Sweeping intelligence reform proposed)

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has expressed concerns that Roberts' plan could create additional barriers between combat commanders and intelligence officials.

Former CIA Director George Tenet called Roberts' proposal dangerous and said it was a step toward driving "the security of the American people off a cliff." (Tenet blasts reform plan)

CNN's John King and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.


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