“The status quo always has an army,” said Thomas Kean, the head of the national commission investigating the September 11 attacks, when he launched his campaign for intelligence reform this year. “To besiege that castle is very difficult.”
The past week has shown just how difficult. An ambitious bill to overhaul the intelligence apparatus looks set to die in Congress, despite support from are-elected President George W. Bush and pressure from the families of the 3,000 victims on September 11.
The bill would create a new national intelligence director to control budgets and priorities for the sprawling intelligence community, which encompasses 15 agencies. The goal, according the commission's much-heralded report completed last July, is to end the fragmentation that prevented those agencies from working together to confront the terrorist threat before September 11 2001. But the agencies that would lose the most authority under that proposal have mustered powerful allies in Congress to derail the scheme.
Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House armed services committee, says he will not permit the nearly 80 per cent of the $40bn (€30bn, £21bn) intelligence budget that falls under direct Pentagon control to be subject to the authority of the new intelligence director. House Republican leaders have refused to override him and bring the bill to a vote.
Congressional leaders say they will make one final attempt to resolve the differences and are hoping to bring Congress back for a vote on December 6. But if they fail, the process will have to begin again next year and the campaign for intelligence reform may lose the urgency that resulted from the commission's damning report.
The consequences could be significant. Porter Goss, the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency and currently the president's chief adviser on intelligence, is in the midst of a bureaucratic battle with the agency that is likely to dominate his attention for some time. Mr Goss has sided with critics of the agency, who have accused it of conspiring against Mr Bush's policies, particularly the war on Iraq. He warned CIA staff in a memo last week: “I intend to clarify beyond doubt the rules of the road. We support the administration and its policies in our work.”
The CIA has little enthusiasm for the reform proposals, which would knock it off its pinnacle at the top of the intelligence community. But the real opposition is coming from elsewhere, particularly the Pentagon.
Mr Hunter says he is merely defending the positions of the armed services, which fear that shifting authority to a national intelligence director could deprive the Pentagon of direct control over satellites and other reconnaissance technologies critical for battlefield intelligence. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed on Tuesday that he opposes giving up that control. It is not clear whether the White House is determined to press the reform scheme over military opposition. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, denied on Tuesday that he had any differences with the White House on the issue or that he had lobbied Congress against the proposal, but he noted “the president's position is evolving”. The White House, he said, had been fully aware of Gen Myers opposition.
While Mr Bush publicly supports the creation of a strong national intelligence director, he arrived there reluctantly in the face of pressure from the commission, the 9/11 victims' families and his election opponent, John Kerry. With the election safely behind, he would lose little by letting the bill die a quiet death.
Mr Kean and the other commissioners are determined to prevent that from happening. They have scheduled a news conference for next week to press Congress to pass the bill.
With the recriminations that followed the September 11 attacks and the failure to find mass destruction weapons in Iraq, the turmoil that has accompanied efforts at intelligence reform is not surprising. John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA who retired this month after disagreements with Mr Goss, wrote in the Washington Post yesterday: “We are in a period when intelligence is being used as a weapon but more against ourselves than our enemies.”
He added: “We should all agree that this must stop.”