Speakers at the Democratic Convention this week worked hard to portray John Kerry as a strong leader on national security. But the Bush White House, with its usual keen sense of political timing, is planning to step all over the Democratic nominee's message. An administration task force is nearing completion of a package of intelligence reform proposals to be implemented immediately by executive orders, making the president appear decisive and mooting Kerry's call for quick action on the 9/11 commission's recommendations.
Asked at a Wednesday press briefing if an announcement on intelligence reform could come within days, a White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, said, "That is accurate," adding: "President Bush has made it clear that he will waste no time in acting on those efforts that will make America safer."
The president, who is wrapping up a weeklong vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, spent half an hour on Wednesday reviewing drafts of the task force proposals (before departing on an hour-and-18-minute mountain bike ride), Duffy said. Bush met again on Thursday with the task force at a videoconference that included Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, among other officials. Last week, Bush devoted his weekly radio address to the 9/11 commission report and spoke at a campaign appearance in Illinois about his resolve to act quickly on its recommendations.
While White House aides have suggested that some proposals will be unveiled next week, likely in a speech by Bush, other Republicans involved in national security issues told me they wouldn't be surprised to see something announced as early as Friday. An announcement of, say, a decision to appoint a new director of national intelligence would compete with analyses of Kerry's convention acceptance speech by the Sunday newspapers and talk shows. It would also take the spotlight away from Congress, where the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday will hold the first of a series of unusual summer-recess hearings on the 9/11 commission recommendations, to be followed in August by hearings in the House.
Whatever the White House timing, the Democrats are in danger of being boxed in. Just a week ago, on the eve of the release of the commission's report, it looked as if they would gain the advantage over an incumbent who ignored pleas for action against al-Qaida until after nearly 3,000 people had died.
"Nobody can afford to appear obstructionist. And it will be impossible [for Democrats] to criticize the president [for acting unilaterally through executive order] because he'll just say he's doing what the 9/11 commission recommended," says James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow on security issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Most Americans don't understand this alphabet soup of DCI and NSA. They just want you to do the right thing and move on."
An aide to a Democratic senator who supports moving quickly on the 9/11 commission recommendations acknowledged the dilemma. "The problem for the [Democratic] leadership is it's not in our interest politically to move quickly. It will say to the public that both parties have made mistakes here at home, and it will take the focus off of the mistakes that have been made by the administration in Iraq," the aide said.
The commission's definitive analysis of the government intelligence and operational failures that led up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was released last Thursday with much fanfare. But as political fodder, the bipartisan commission's conclusions were something of a letdown for Democrats. While concluding that the Bush White House had been grossly dismissive of the threat posed by al-Qaida prior to the attacks, it also found fault with the Clinton administration for not acting aggressively enough to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, especially after the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Africa.
An energetic public relations campaign by the commission's co-chairmen, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, Thomas Kean, and the Democratic former representative from Indiana, Lee Hamilton, has kept the pressure on for action. The commission's report, published in paperback, has become a bestseller, including landing the top-ranked spot on Amazon.com (as of Thursday). And families of 9/11 victims have vowed to make sure policymakers in Washington don't ignore the commission's blueprint for intelligence reform. Kerry, meanwhile, has called on Bush to extend the commission for an additional 18 months so its members can continue to lobby for reforms, an option Bush -- who originally opposed the creation of the commission -- is not likely to pursue.
Yet it will be difficult for Democrats to criticize the president and steal the political advantage if he makes some swift changes via executive order, Carafano contends. "He'll just say he's doing what the 9/11 commission recommended. It will be impossible to say that is bad. And the president can just do it. You know that he will. That's what [the White House] has always done. When momentum builds for something, they take it over, as if it were their own," Carafano says, citing the president's belated support for the Department of Homeland Security, originally proposed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and the 9/11 commission itself.
The commission recommended streamlining the lines of authority of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies and unifying their estimated $40 billion in collective budgets under one person -- the proposed new director of national intelligence. As it stands now, the director of the CIA is nominally responsible for overseeing the entire intelligence community. But in practice, with more than 80 percent of the intelligence budget now under control of the Department of Defense, that oversight has been lacking.
The commission would establish a National Counterterrorism Center that would unify foreign and domestic intelligence gathering and operational planning, breaking down barriers between the FBI, the CIA and other related government agencies. A similar type of clearinghouse was supposed to have been established under the new Department of Homeland Security. But the new department was untested and untrusted, and the CIA, despite having been in charge during the most devastating intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, won a turf battle to retain that function.
The commission also recommended strengthening what it called Congress' "dysfunctional" oversight of the intelligence community. And it said that the notoriously incompetent FBI and holes in the nation's spotty homeland defenses must be fixed.
It's anybody's guess, meanwhile, whether Congress will approve legislation beyond Bush's temporary executive orders to implement the commission's reforms before the November elections. One school of thought urges inaction: Once laws are passed they are nearly impossible to redo, and some national security experts warn that it would be better to not botch the job by moving too quickly for political purposes. Others argue that it would be better to seize the historic moment and enact whatever changes are possible now.
Few believe that any terrorist attack that may be planned for the near future will be stopped by a government reorganization, which will take months, if not years, to bear fruit. But the issue is now so thoroughly politicized that the White House is sure to try to put Kerry on the defensive in whatever way it can.