(HOST) Commentator Bill Seamans reflects on the national debate over reform of our intelligence services.
(SEAMANS) When is a national security emergency really urgent? Does the word urgent mean something that needs immediate attention, or does it mean that we’ll give the problem immediate attention when it is politically convenient?
Last July the 9/11 Commission issued its report calling for overhauling our intelligence services. The bipartisan consensus was that the panel had done an outstanding job – fair, accurate, proactive, and the report was so readable it is selling in book stores like a novel. The major suggestion was that a national intelligence director be set up – an intelligence czar with budgetary and personnel control over all our spookdom and to make sure that our fifteen intelligence agencies shared their secrets.
The report said the need was as urgent as the al Qaeda threat. Six months later the bill was still being held up by a squabble over whether illegal immigrants should be given drivers’ licenses and whether the new czar would slow up the transmission of real time intelligence to our war fighters.
But the words budgetary control have raised suggestions that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has played a behind-the-scenes role in the controversy – that the two Congressmen causing the delay were said to be – in Washington speak – close to the Pentagon. Rumsfeld controls a staggering 80% of the estimated $40 billion intelligence budget. Some supporters of the bill have suggested anonymously that Rumsfeld has made obvious efforts to weaken the new intelligence czar’s budgetary control to a so-called advisory capacity – that Rumsfeld was fighting against giving up his extraordinary political muscle money. Giving up that amount of power doesn’t fit Rumfeld’s hardnose character. All of this Rumsfeld has denied.
A compromise has been reached to get the intelligence reform bill passed. It was anticipated that, regardless of the country’s security crisis, appointing a national intelligence director who would invade the turf of a deeply ingrained intelligence community culture would cause a blowback. If the powers that the 9/11 Commission suggested that the new super spook boss be given are watered down by ambiguous concessions, then so will his ability to force our various spy agencies to work together so that critical intelligence isn’t overlooked as it was prior to the 9/11 terrorism disaster.
Budgetary control means power – without that power our new intelligence czar will be just another Washington talking head…and you and I will be the losers.
This is Bill Seamans.
Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for A-B-C News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.