WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Thursday unveiled an overhaul of intelligence powers that concentrates power in the national intelligence director and drew immediate criticism from Congress for failing to consult on the changes.
U.S. President George W. Bush approved revising a 1981 executive order to better define the various intelligence agencies’ roles and responsibilities as well as take into account a 2004 law that created the director of national intelligence job.
The efforts to shore up U.S. intelligence activities follow numerous lapses, including failing to detect the September 11 attacks ahead of time as well as erroneous conclusions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Even after the position was created, the intelligence community has not been without controversy. Last December it issued a report that questioned Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions despite concerns by some administration hardliners.
“Today’s actions will help create a more effective intelligence community capable of providing the president and his advisers with information necessary to defend our national and homeland security,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
The action by Bush provoked bipartisan anger among House of Representatives lawmakers who said they were not properly consulted or briefed on the planned changes.
“We were only shown the document after it was complete and on its way to the president for his signature,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat who heads the House Intelligence Committee.
“Given the impact that this order will have on America’s intelligence community, and this committee’s responsibility to oversee intelligence activities, this cannot be seen as anything other than an attempt to undercut congressional oversight,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the panel.
Under the order, the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, will gain primary responsibility for developing relationships with foreign intelligence agencies that had been traditionally handled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
He would also assume a larger role in hiring and firing agency heads and overseeing the acquisition of new spy satellites and other expensive programs.
Still, administration officials stressed that the revisions did not affect U.S. civil liberties, a key concern among many Democrats in Congress who have warily eyed the Bush administration after its warrantless wiretap program.
“The executive order maintains and strengthens existing protections for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights,” Perino said.
Reporting by Alan Elsner, Editing by Eric Walsh