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Hamilton: Lots of 'Ferment and Fluidity'Surrounding Intelligence Reform

Interviewee: Lee H. Hamilton
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 25, 2004

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Lee H. Hamilton, the co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission says he is pleased with the reception the bipartisan commission’s recommendations have received so far. He says the key recommendation remains the creation of a national intelligence director with sweeping budgetary, programming, and personnel powers over the intelligence community.

“Unless you have someone with real authority at the top of the intelligence community, you will not be able to get the kind of sharing of information that we think was sorely lacking prior to 9/11 and is very much needed,” the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 25, 2004.


What’s your sense of the reaction so far to the 9/11 Commission’s report?

I think all of us on the commission have been very pleased. The commission report has certainly been well received. We have, as you know, met with the president and the vice president; they said some good things about it. We’ve been doing a lot of testifying on Capitol Hill. The work of the commission has been highly praised. We are now beginning to see criticisms and counter-proposals; that’s certainly to be anticipated. We are working with both the executive branch and the legislative branches to try to shape proposals, and so, overall, I think the report has gotten the attention of high-level officials in both branches of government, and it has had a resonance with which we’ve been very gratified.

And certainly you probably never thought you’d be writing a best-seller.

Right up there with “Harry Potter.”

Of the report’s many recommendations, which ones do you want to give priority?

I think in the legislative sense, there are probably three, and they would be: the national intelligence director proposal, the national counterterrorism center, and reform of the way the Congress handles the oversight of the intelligence community.

A lot of what we recommend could probably be done by executive order, particularly those [proposals] relating to information-sharing and the FBI. Some really are a matter of congressional oversight and funding, like many of the proposals regarding entering and exiting the country. We’ve not tried to sort out what should be done by legislation and what should be done by executive order in detail; we really leave that to the policy-makers. But we do believe the first two things I mentioned— the national intelligence director and the national counterterrorism center— would certainly take legislative action, or, at least, it would be much better if legislative action were taken, rather than to do it solely by executive order.

The national intelligence director idea has caused some ripples, particularly within the intelligence community, about whether it wouldn’t be preferable to enhance the role of the director of central intelligence by giving him budget authority over the intelligence community.

There have been a lot of efforts over a period of years to strengthen the hand of the director of central intelligence. We’ve seen some enhancement of authority, I think, over that time, but we really think that that’s tinkering on the margins and not going to the heart of the matter. We believe that a national intelligence director— who is the principal intelligence adviser to the president; who manages the national intelligence program; oversees the component agencies; has real authority, in terms of budget and personnel and information systems; who submits a unified budget for the national intelligence community; who receives appropriations for national intelligence; who has the authority to reprogram; who approves and submits nominations to the president; sets personnel policies; sets information and information-technology policies— is badly needed. Unless you have someone with real authority at the top of the intelligence community, you will not be able to get the kind of sharing of information that we think was sorely lacking prior to 9/11 and is very much needed.

And in your recommendations, you say that he should have three senior deputies— one the CIA director, one the undersecretary of defense, and the third, the FBI?

Homeland Security. We are not so concerned about the boxes as we are the authority. This term gets fixated on, boxes. I’ve been doing a lot of testifying, and there’s obviously a lot of interest in the organizational chart. [The boxes] are not unimportant, but our major concern is the authorities that lie with the national intelligence director.

How important is the budget authority? Most people I’ve spoken to think that’s really paramount, since most of the money right now goes to the Defense Department, and the CIA director has little control over that.

That’s right. We believe strongly that the national intelligence director must have budget authority, and that includes reprogramming authority. Without it, we don’t think it makes much sense to create the position because [budget authority] is key.

The president’s initial comments seemed to favor a relatively weak national director. Lately, he seems more open to suggestions.

I think there’s a lot of ferment within the executive branch and within the White House on this whole intelligence question. They’ve got a full plate, of course, with a lot of other matters and activities before them. The commission welcomed President Bush’s support for several of the commission’s recommendations. He endorsed the idea of a national intelligence director; he endorsed the idea of a national counterterrorism center. He was not precise, or specific, with regard to the authorities, and we think that’s still under discussion. We appreciate the discussions we’re having with the administration and the Congress about the substance of these ideas. I see this very much as a work in progress, both in the executive branch and in the Congress. And what’s pleasing to us is that they are reaching out to us for information and for ideas and for support.

What do you make of Senator Pat Robertsproposal?

A moment ago, I spoke about the ferment and fluidity in both the executive and congressional branches. Obviously, we were pleased that Senator Roberts and the other Republican members [of the Senate Intelligence Committee] chose to tackle such a tough issue as reform. He’s a very important player in all of this, and they produced a very thorough and thought-provoking piece of work. There are a number of areas with which we are clearly in agreement: he believes the status quo is not acceptable; he believes reform is necessary; he supports the creation of a national intelligence director with strong budgetary authority and authority over personnel; he recommends the creation, as we did, of a national counterterrorism center, where all intelligence on terrorism, foreign and domestic, is pooled and acted upon. He is very sensitive to the need to ensure that intelligence capabilities serve both the tactical needs of the military and the strategic needs of the civilian policy-maker. And we are in agreement with regard to the strong national security workforce of the FBI. And he clearly wants to put someone in charge, which, of course, was one of our principal proposals.

Now there are some differences, and we are discussing those differences with them now. He takes away more of the defense intelligence agencies from the direction of the DOD [Department of Defense] than we do. These are not important, but they are matters of less importance, probably, than the things we agree on.

He also wants to break up the CIA, doesn’t he?

That’s not clear to me. I know that statement has been made; I don’t know if it was made by him or not. He’s also said, subsequently, that the CIA is going to stay and people are going to be working in the building, and so forth. That’s one of the areas, I think, that needs clarification.

Is it realistic to expect anything substantial to come out of the Congress before the elections?

I think it’s realistic to expect some legislation— that’s not a prediction on my part. The move yesterday by senators [Bill] Frist [R-Tenn.] and [Tom] Daschle [D-S.D., the majority and minority leaders, respectively] and the instructions they have given to the 22 senators involved [in] a taskforce, or something of that order, will try to move this along. They’ve given clear instructions to Senator [Susan] Collins [R-Maine] and Senator [Joseph] Lieberman [D-Conn., the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs] to produce a bill by a certain date. There’s a lot of activity on the Senate side to move in September and have a bill ready by October, before they [adjourn]. It’s less clear what’s happening on the House side; I think they are still developing their approach to it. But Tom Kean [co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission] and I and the other commissioners have spent an awful lot of time, on both sides, testifying.

And there will be more hearings after Labor Day, I take it.

Yes.

Do you expect some kind of terrorist attack in the next month or so, or even during the Republican Convention?

I expect an attack, but I don’t put any time frame on it. I just think that’s unknowable, at least from my perspective. We interviewed a very large number of people— over 1,000 people and, I think, most of the experts in the country; maybe not all of them, but a good many of them— either formally or informally. I don’t think a single one of them said, “Do not expect an attack.” Everybody expects an attack. We think the terrorist has: No. 1, the intent to kill as many Americans as possible, and No. 2, the capability. And that equation makes for a real danger.

New Yorkers are, in a way, accustomed to the threat, but it is worrisome.

We do believe that the two principal targets still remain New York and Washington. And that doesn’t mean other targets are not important or won’t be hit, but if you look at what [extremists have] said about wanting to cause maximum danger, damage, hitting the symbols of American strength, causing great damage to this country, then we think the highest-risk areas are New York and Washington.

What was the biggest surprise to you in the two years of 9/11 Commission hearings and interviews?

I think the biggest failure— and I guess that’s the biggest surprise— was the lack of sharing of information. The extent to which the stovepipe phenomenon exists was the biggest surprise and the biggest disappointment. Secondly, I would put the lack of imagination by officials. We— and by we, I mean all of us— just didn’t anticipate this. Looking back on it, we really should not be surprised by it, any of us, because there was plenty of notification that Osama bin Laden had declared war on us, that he was going to try to kill as many of us as he could, and that he, in fact, killed a number of Americans on several continents. Yet we did not get the message. We did not understand the gravity of the threat, and we assumed that they would not be able to do such a thing. It was a bad mistake on the part of all of us.

Has the government done much since 9/11? Has there been more intelligence-sharing?

Yes. I think the government’s done a great deal. I think you’ve got a lot of very dedicated people working very hard to correct the problems that are now widely recognized, which we spelled out in our report. If you talk to any of the government agencies, they will give you a long list of things that they have done and are doing as a result of 9/11. That’s encouraging, yet it’s very, very hard to measure.

I don’t have any doubt about the intent of our homeland security people; I don’t have any doubt that there’s more sharing of information going on now than existed before 9/11. In the large departments and agencies of government, you wonder how deep that sharing goes. The top officials will say, “We meet regularly, and we are sharing information.” But there are massive amounts of information. Is it being shared at all levels of government? That’s very hard to judge. I think it is being shared at the top levels, but, you know, the nature of intelligence is you pick up various bits and pieces of information from various sources, and the key is to put it all together and analyze it and manage it. Whether or not that’s being done satisfactorily is extremely hard to judge.