The sudden collapse of efforts to reorganize the American intelligence services may be nothing more than a power play or it may be an honest reflection of legitimate concerns about a fundamental revision in how the nation gathers information about its adversaries.
Whichever it is, though, the outcome cannot be to derail this crucial work. President Bush, who boasted about the political capital he gained through his re-election, needs to spend some of it on this matter, possibly the most significant legislation to come before Congress in a generation.
The bill was scuttled by two concerns. The legitimacy of both those concerns is at least questionable.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, claims the bill would harm the Pentagon's ability to share intelligence with commanders in the field. That would be indeed worrisome, if true, and Hunter's concern mirrors objections cited by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But Sen. Pat Roberts, a conservative Republican from Kansas who, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is in an even better position to evaluate those concerns, calls Hunter's objections a "canard."
Meanwhile, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, insists on including language to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses, as some of the 9/1 1 hijackers did. As plausible as that concern may be, it can be handled separately if necessary. It cannot be the reason America clings to an intelligence system that lately has been nothing less than disastrous.
The need to restructure the nation's multiple intelligence functions has been made catastrophically apparent over the past three years. The failure to uncover the 9/1 1 plot, the errors regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and the deadly underestimation of the difficulties in pacifying Iraq all lie at the feet of U.S. intelligence.
The 9/1 1 Commission, formed to look into the terror attacks, issued a detailed and mainly unchallenged report calling on Washington to consolidate the splintered and unaccountable intelligence services. Spread across many federal agencies, including the FBI, State Department, Energy Deparment and the Central Intelligence Agency, intelligence gathering and analysis lacks central control.
Pressure to reform the intelligence system reached fever pitch during the election season, which raised the risk that Congress would act hastily and unwisely. With the election safely passed, the risk now is that it will not act at all, also unwisely.
President Bush has said he wants some version of the 9/1 1 Commission's recommendations to be adopted. If that is really the case, then he will have to step up pressure, first on Rumsfeld and any other members of his team who make it seem the administration doesn't know what it wants, and then on the congressional Republicans who must either deal with the objections raised by Hunter and Sensenbrenner or overrule them.
If that doesn't work, Bush should take a page from President Ronald Reagan's playbook and appeal directly to the people of the country who, we suspect, would be glad to set their representatives straight.