WASHINGTON - Under election-year pressure, President George W. Bush on Monday overruled some of his most senior advisers and called on Congress to create a national intelligence director recommended by the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"We are a nation in danger. We're doing everything we can in our power to confront the danger," Bush said, as authorities in New York and Washington moved to protect financial institutions after receiving information that al Qaeda might attack them.
Bush, appearing in the White House Rose Garden with top national security aides, stopped short of recommending the new intelligence director be located in the executive office of the presidency, as the commission had recommended.
There have been bipartisan fears that putting the director in the White House could politicise the job. Bush has been accused of exaggerating intelligence on Iraq to justify war.
Democrats accused Bush of dragging his feet on setting up the position nearly three years after the September 11 attacks and not giving it sufficient spending authority to direct the operations of 15 agencies that gather intelligence.
"I think the fact that it's taken us three years to get here makes its own statement about urgency ... We cannot afford reluctance in the protection of our country," Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said.
Without real control of the intelligence budget, "That's a recipe for failure," said Rep. Jane Harman, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card countered that the director would have "an awful lot of input into the development of any budgets in the intelligence community." Bush said the new director would coordinate the budget.
Democrats also called on the Republican leadership to call the Congress back from recess to take up legislation to overhaul intelligence. The White House said committees with oversight in this area were already holding rare August meetings.
Bush, who initially opposed the establishment of the September 11 commission, is under political pressure in an election year to respond swiftly to the panel's recommendations amid fears of another terrorist attack.
Card said Bush wanted Congress to act quickly, but deliberately, on the recommendations. He insisted "this is not about politics."
"These are big decisions. And as you know, this is a model that will be there for many presidents. And so we'd like to get it right," Card said.
Bush asked Congress to set up the position as part of an overhaul of the 1947 National Security Act that established the CIA and the National Security Council.
The president also proposed setting up a national counter-terrorism centre to prepare a daily terrorism report for the president and act as the government's "knowledge bank" about terrorism.
Aides said Bush is expected to nominate in the next few days a new CIA director to replace George Tenet, who resigned.
Kerry, who has called for quick adoption of the September 11 commission's recommendations, said he believed Bush administration policies were encouraging recruitment of terrorists, a statement Bush said was a "ridiculous notion."
The White House acknowledged a "healthy debate" within the administration over creating what amounts to an intelligence czar and breaking with decades of giving agencies relative autonomy.
At least three members of the Bush's national security team, such as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, had argued there was no need for a national intelligence director, saying it would create more bureaucratic layers.
But Bush said he opted for the new position "because I think it was the right thing to do."
White House officials said having the job in the West Wing could lead to undue influence on that person.
Bush said the panel investigating the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq should consider whether the US government should establish a separate office to coordinate counter-proliferation efforts.
The September 11 commission report found that "deep institutional failings" by the US government led to the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.