WASHINGTON - House lawmakers and senior Pentagon officials expressed misgivings yesterday about the Sept. 11 commission's proposal to create a national intelligence director, saying they feared that such centralization could hinder troops' quick access to battlefield intelligence.
Amid a deepening debate over the commission's report, lawmakers and Defense Department officials said during a congressional hearing that they feared a central intelligence office might hang on to data in Washington, or at least slow transmission of the pictures and data that troops need quickly to find their targets.
"Done wrong, it will hoard everything into Washington, ... and that would be a mistake," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.
The discussion took place during a House Armed Services Committee hearing that brought together the leaders of the Sept. 11 commission and officials from the Defense Department, which controls more than 80 percent of U.S. intelligence spending.
While several congressional committees have been considering the commission's recommendations, the Armed Services panel is the first to signal skepticism about some of the proposals. The panel and its Senate counterpart will have a major say in any reform legislation.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who chairs the committee, has expressed concern about the plan for an intelligence chief, insisting that the panel would not be "steamrollered" into approving such a recommendation.
He asked the leaders of the Sept. 11 commission yesterday whether they were concerned that centralizing operations around a national director could obstruct the military's access to tactical information in wartime.
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton told the committee in a joint statement that "it is unimaginable to us that the national intelligence director would not give protection for our forces deployed in the field a high priority." They insisted that separate management of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon was responsible for many of the intelligence problems uncovered by the panel.
Hamilton said the 9/11 panel "did not intend to make any recommendation which would adversely impact the war fighter. ... What we're trying to do is increase the capability of the intelligence community to identify terrorist threats and to deal with them and to manage them. And we do not see that interfering with fighting a war, and it should not."
He and Kean said the Defense Department could maintain a large measure of influence over the intelligence structure by making the Pentagon's undersecretary for intelligence a senior deputy to the national intelligence director.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Rep. H. James Saxton, a New Jersey Republican, questioned how the reorganization would affect the military.
Gen. Bryan Brown, chief of the military's Special Operations Command, said he wanted information "instantly available to my guy on the ground, or my guy in the air. I would not want any impediment."
Despite their misgivings, the defense officials insisted that they did not necessarily oppose the proposal, but simply wanted to see that it was thoroughly considered and executed correctly.
Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, pressed the Pentagon officials to speak candidly, saying he was "very worried that we're hearing a lot of sweet talking, slow walking here. ... After a lot of back and forth here, I'm worried that you all have the kill in for the recommendations of the 9/11 commission."
Wolfowitz, however, insisted that "taking a little bit of time to think through those changes so that we make them the right way should not be interpreted as changing slowly."
President Bush has endorsed the idea of creating a national intelligence director, but has opposed giving a director budgetary control or placing the job within the White House.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.