Senate Panel Studies Intelligence Community

Did Congress get it right when it passed the historic overhaul of U.S. intelligence efforts two years ago? That's the subject of renewed debate on Capitol Hill, where some feel the director of national intelligence may lack the legal authority he needs.

With John Negroponte — the first person to serve as director of national intelligence — leaving for a State Department job, some critics say the time may be right for more changes in the intelligence apparatus.

At a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, senior intelligence officials argued that there's no need to rewrite the law.

The point of the hearing was to investigate whether the "promise of intelligence reform has been fully realized." At least that's how committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) put it.

A number of senators made clear that they're in the "no" camp.

"I have been very disappointed in the DNI," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Feinstein added that she is not disappointed with Negroponte, but she did criticize him for adopting too low a public profile.

"I have been very disappointed that the DNI has not been really available and present and around," she said. "And that's — I'm just gonna say it — was not certainly not my view of what a DNI should be."

Feinstein says she wants to change the law, and move the DNI, which is currently housed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., closer to the main spy agencies that it's supposed to be overseeing.

Other senators floated ideas for intelligence reform, such as increasing the DNI's budget and personnel authorities.

But of the six DNI officials testifying, not one seems to think this is a good idea. Patrick Kennedy is the DNI's top deputy for management.

"You've given us solid authorities," he told senators. "And we may ask for, you know, a comma here or a clause there. But nothing that I'm finding is a major shortcoming."

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) appeared to be puzzled by Kennedy's comment. She said she hears that the DNI's authority is actually pretty shaky.

Not so, Kennedy replied.

"So you think he has considerable authority, then?" Snowe asked.

"Yes, ma'am, I do," Kennedy said.

"Well, you know, it's troubling then," Snowe said. "Because I think there seems to be a gap, at least in perception, in terms of whether or not the DNI does have real authority."

Kennedy and the other officials testifying did not escape without being grilled on the forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. This is the authoritative judgment of all 16 U.S. spy agencies on the situation there; and it's running at least a month late. Both Republican and Democratic senators — such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) — expressed their displeasure.

"What is so troubling to all of us now, is we're not going to get a relevant new National Intelligence Estimate until well after the U.S. Senate casts critically important votes. That's not acceptable," he said.

The nation's top intelligence analyst, Thomas Fingar, said he plans to finish the Iraq NIE by the end of January. And he provided a sneak preview of one key judgment, on the question of whether Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki can live up to U.S. expectations.

"We judge that Malaki does not wish to fail," Fingar said. "He does not wish to preside over the disintegration of Iraq. It will be very difficult for the Maliki government to succeed, but not impossible."

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