By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Under election-year pressure, President Bush said on Wednesday he supported giving «full budgetary authority» to a new national intelligence director after initially balking at the recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.
«We believe that there ought to be a national intelligence director who has full budgetary authority,» Bush said at a meeting with U.S. congressional leaders with oversight over the intelligence agencies.
Bush provided no details but the White House said later it included giving the new director authority over at least what is called the national foreign intelligence program, which constitutes more than half of the U.S. intelligence budget.
Bush plans to unveil his own legislative proposals in the coming days.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has supported all the measures recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.
«If George W. Bush were serious about intelligence reform, he’d stop taking half-measures,» said Kerry’s national security adviser, Rand Beers.
Democrats have accused Bush of dragging his feet on setting up the position nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and not giving it sufficient spending authority to direct the operations of 15 agencies that gather intelligence.
Last month Bush backed the commission’s call for creating a national intelligence director, but he initially balked at granting the director the sweeping authority over budgets and personnel proposed by the panel. The White House said at the time the new director would have «input» into the development of agency budgets.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, called Bush’s support for full budgetary authority a «very significant announcement.»
But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California complained: «There has been too much delay.»
Revamping U.S. spy agencies is expected to dominate the U.S. Congress in the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections
The Sept. 11 commission found major failures in intelligence gathering and sharing information before the hijacked commercial airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing almost 3,000.
Legislation introduced on Tuesday by key lawmakers, including Lieberman, would give the new director control over most of the roughly $40 billion intelligence budget. The Pentagon now controls about 80 percent of that money.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some of Bush’s other top advisers had raised objections to such a sweeping shift.
But with the election possibly at stake, Bush was anxious to demonstrate his commitment to intelligence reform.
Last month, in an interim step, Bush expanded the power of the CIA director to set national intelligence priorities.
But commission officials say that without full budgetary authority, the new intelligence director would have limited power to control the intelligence agencies.
«I will be submitting a plan to the Congress that strengthens intelligence services,» Bush said, adding he would work with lawmakers «to get a bill to my desk as quickly as possible.»
«It’s important to get our intelligence gathering correct. After all, we’re still at war,» he added.
Bush initially opposed setting up the Sept. 11 commission. (Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Donna Smith)
By Adam Entous