Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Monday endorsed creating a new national intelligence director to coordinate the nation's intelligence agencies, telling senators that giving the position real power will help keep America safe.
"A strong national intelligence director is essential," Powell told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at a morning hearing. "That strength is gained by giving the NID full budget authority."
"In this town, it's the ultimate command and control," Ridge added.
The two secretaries also said a new intelligence director will also help them do their job.
"Do you believe that a strong national intelligence director … will improve the quality of intelligence you both receive?" asked Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's chair.
"Yes, I do. We need a stronger empowered quarterback," Powell replied.
Ridge said, "I concur" and said such a move likely would facilitate his access to intelligence.
President Bush last week endorsed the idea of combining most of the nation's nonmilitary intelligence agencies under a new national intelligence director, a recommendation that the committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks pushed strongly in its final report.
The panel also called for the director to have the power to decide how to spend money that Congress sets aside for nonmilitary intelligence work. Mr. Bush also supports that idea, as do many members of Congress.
The 9/11 commission said part of the problem before and on Sept. 11 was that the nation's 15 intelligence agencies were not working properly together, and said creating a strong intelligence director would force those agencies to cooperate.
"The president's proposal will provide better unity of effort in the intelligence community and improved linkage with law enforcement, which will greatly enhance our ability to do our job of protecting Americans and securing the homeland," Ridge said. "The new responsibilities of the DCI will ensure that DHS has what it needs from other intelligence agencies and that our efforts are properly integrated in the national intelligence picture."
But Powell and Ridge warned senators against following the commission's recommendation of giving the intelligence director deputies inside the CIA, the Defense Department and the FBI.
"We need clear lines of authority, and to have in the structure people who have to report to two different masters would not contribute to clarity of responsibility and accountability," Powell said.
The Senate next week expects to start working on final legislation to reorganize the 15 intelligence agencies and create a national intelligence director. House leaders are still working out how that chamber will deal with the Sept. 11 commission's legislative recommendations.
One intelligence agency not affected by the president's or the 9/11 commission's proposal is the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which gets its $50 million from that department's budget and works directly with the secretary of state.
When questioned by Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Powell said he wanted to keep control of that agency but agreed that the national intelligence director should "have the ability to concur" on who the agency's director will be, "and if there's a disagreement, we'll take it to the president."
But "INR works for me as it always has in the past," Powell said.
About 80 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget, which is classified, is believed to be controlled by the Defense Department, comprising the Defense Intelligence Agency, separate intelligence offices for each service branch and two joint intelligence offices.
Under the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, the national intelligence director would hire and fire the head of the DIA, but the Pentagon would retain control over the rest.
Last week, some lawmakers started a push Tuesday for Congress to adopt all the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations for revamping the intelligence community.
The bill would create a national intelligence director with "real budget authority" and a national counterterrorism center, a Lieberman statement said.
It would also improve information sharing among government security agencies, bolster screening at U.S. borders, increase aid to key countries and "ensure that civil liberties and privacy rights are protected as reforms are implemented."
The measure is sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., will introduce a House version.
Congress is working on several different bills inspired by the Sept. 11 commission, making it unlikely that it will just accept legislation based strictly on the commission report.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., wants Congress to transfer the nation's major intelligence gathering from the CIA and the Pentagon to control by a new national intelligence director.
With Congress scheduled to break again Oct. 8 until after the election, pressure will be on for leaders to call a lame-duck session that could run until Christmas to complete the intelligence overhaul and a corporate tax bill.
Republican leaders acknowledge the goal may fall victim to turf disputes and lawmakers' focus on getting themselves re-elected Nov. 2.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert and key Senate committee chairmen are warning against a rush to judgment.