New cycle for notion of security director

  • By Jerry Cornfield / Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, August 7, 2004 9:00pm
  • Local News

Washington, D.C., leads the nation in recycling ideas.

So it should come as no surprise that the Sept. 11 commission’s call for an all-powerful director of national intelligence is a remake of an old proposal.

In 1981, when President Reagan began his tenure, awaiting him was a copy of the “Mandate for Leadership” from his conservative friends at the Heritage Foundation.

This 1,100-page opus included a chapter on reforming intelligence agencies and an urged that a director of national intelligence linked to the executive office be appointed. The director would oversee U.S. agencies gathering information in the country and around the world, except for military intelligence, which would remain in the Department of Defense.

But it didn’t happen. Not that year, not the next, not ever. Little political will and no public interest left intact a system splintered into innumerable agencies – the oversight of which is splayed among 88 congressional committees.

The idea of unifying under one leader may soon be reality. The memory of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the celebrity of the Sept. 11 commission and the presidential campaign are creating a perfect storm of opportunity.

That recommendation “simply can’t be ignored,” said Sept. 11 panel commissioner and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican.

Sept. 11 propelled the fight against terrorism to the top of national security concerns, and the commission, in doing its work with unprecedented openness, won over a skeptical public and convinced people of the possibilities for change.

Some of the commissioners, who fought the politicizing of their investigation, now play to the politics of the presidential campaign. Commission members have paired up and are traveling the nation to push their cause and sign the commission report.

“We want people to take advantage of a political campaign to ask their political candidate what they are going to do about the 9-11 report,” Gorton said Tuesday in Seattle, the first stop for him and fellow commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.

It appears to be working. Sen. John Kerry has embraced the entire package of the commissioners’ recommendations. President Bush agreed last week to hire a national intelligence director, though that person would have far less power than envisioned by the commission. Bush also backed creation of a national counterterrorism center, another suggested reform.

The statements are a step. If no action follows, the commissioners are certain to reply.

“We didn’t spend 20 months trying to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” Ben-Veniste said.

Gorton, not one inclined toward hyperbole, said the debate is taking place in a much different world than before. Americans are safer than in 2001, but not safe enough, he said.

“There’s a bomb out there, and the fuse is lit,” Gorton said. “We don’t know whether that fuse will hit the bomb in five days, five months or five years. The duty of us all is to be sure the safer becomes safer still.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield’s column on politics runs every Sunday. He can be heard at 7 a.m. Monday on the “Morning Show” on KSER (90.7 FM). He can be reached at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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