WASHINGTON (Reuters) â€” US President George W. Bush approved dozens of changes at US spy agencies on Wednesday to better combat weapons of mass destruction, including creating a new centre and moving FBI counterterrorism and intelligence operations into a new unit.
Acting in the face of sharp criticism since the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bush signed off on 70 of 74 recommendations from a special presidential commission and gave US authorities new powers to freeze assets of companies believed to be helping North Korea, Iran and Syria pursue nuclear, biological and chemical arms.
An executive order issued on Wednesday did not mention specific countries, but said it applied to “any person or foreign country of proliferation concern.” A US official said that, for now, the administration is targeting four entities from Iran, three from North Korea and one from Syria.
The White House said it will further study three of the recommendations made in March by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, and will not implement one classified recommendation.
“It’s a fundamental strengthening of our intelligence capabilities. It’s not simply moving the boxes. It’s not simply a restructuring,” Frances Townsend, the president’s homeland security adviser, said.
The changes marked another Bush administration effort to shore up intelligence-gathering operations, widely criticised for failing to detect the September 11 plot and for inaccurate prewar assessments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Bush administration cited the claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD stockpiles as the key reason for the US-led invasion of Iraq. None have been found.
To streamline procedures as recommended by the commission, Bush directed that a new National Security Service be created inside the FBI to combine the bureau’s counterterrorism, counterintelligence and intelligence efforts.
Some intelligence experts saw the recommendations as a blow to FBI authority while strengthening the hand of the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, who is charged with overhauling the system of 15 spy agencies.
But FBI Director Robert Mueller said: “I see it as a gain. I do not see it as a diminishment of authority. And I see it as the next step in the evolution of the FBI as it becomes better prepared to address the threats of the future.”
Bush also approved of creating a National Counter Proliferation Centre to manage and coordinate intelligence activities on the proliferation of the deadly weaponry.
The White House supported having the CIA in charge of spies and covert action planning. That rejected a classified commission recommendation to move planning of covert operations to the national counterterrorism and counterproliferation centres, Townsend said.
Intelligence experts saw the CIA keeping its premier role in human spying operations as a major victory for an agency at times embroiled in turf battles with the Pentagon and FBI.
“The responsibilities assigned to CIA underscore the critical nature of our work and the trust and confidence placed in this agency,” CIA Director Porter Goss said. “It also reaffirms our role as the lead for human intelligence.”
One commission recommendation that the White House said required further study was to hold agencies accountable for flawed assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that despite the White House decision to implement the commission recommendations, “regrettably, an important element is still missing â€” fixing the administration’s flawed and paralysed policies and foot-dragging in the larger fight against WMD.”