WASHINGTON -- The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission implored Congress to move quickly to reform the nation's intelligence structure, warning yesterday that failure to act would leave America vulnerable to another devastating terrorist attack.
A working group appointed by President Bush also continued its meetings yesterday, and a senior White House official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said it was close to presenting a package of reforms to Bush.
Among the ideas prompting discussion is the establishment of a new national intelligence director, one of the key proposals from the 9/11 commission. The official said the administration's internal debate has centered on the scope of that person's authority and how the individual would work with the CIA.
In an unusual Senate hearing during summer recess on Capitol Hill, the 9/11 commission's chairman, Thomas Kean, and vice chairman Lee Hamilton acknowledged institutional resistance to change will make reforms difficult, but said the status quo is not an option.
Key members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee pledged to swiftly but thoughtfully consider the commission's proposals.
The panel has recommended some 40 changes, but yesterday's hearing focused mostly on two: creation of a new national counterterrorism center and a new national intelligence director to oversee the 15-agency intelligence community.
''We have concluded the intelligence community is not going to get its job done unless somebody really is in charge," Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, told the Senate committee. ''That is just not the case now, and we have paid the price."
Intelligence reform has become a key issue in the fall election, with Kean, Hamilton and other commissioners vowing to keep the pressure on Congress and the Bush administration to make changes.
The Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kerry, has endorsed the commission findings. Bush has created a working group to study the recommendations and draft executive orders that could immediately implement some of the proposals.
The senior White House official, saying he could only speak anonymously because policy proposals remain under discussion, laid out three principles to guide the group's debate: increase human intelligence capabilities, maintain the country's technical collection advantage over the enemy, and improve coordination among agencies in the intelligence community.
Without providing specifics, the official said the working group is looking at options that could go beyond what the commission recommended.
''Reform is not easy," Bush said at a campaign stop in Springfield, Mo. ''Achieving reform requires taking on the special interests, requires challenging the status quo."
The commission's widely acclaimed report recounted numerous intelligence missteps in the months preceding the 2001 terror attacks against New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The 10 commissioners, traveling in pairs, are embarking on a nationwide tour next week to share their report with the public and to draw attention to the need for intelligence reforms. Kean said the commission is seeking private donations to continue the panel's work past Aug. 26, when it is scheduled to dissolve.
Kean attributed pre-9/11 intelligence failures to a profound lack of coordination across intelligence agencies.
''No one was the quarterback, no one was calling the plays," Kean said. In the proposed reorganization, he said, ''each agency needs to give up some of their existing turf and some of their authority."
During the hearing, Kean called it ''unacceptable" that the recently departed CIA director, George Tenet, asserted that the country is five years from an adequate clandestine service.
However, Kean and Hamilton praised reforms already undertaken by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller 3d, who has sought to transform the bureau's priority from criminal probes to counterterrorism.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chairwoman Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, urged fellow lawmakers to ''be bold but not reckless" in considering changes that will lead to what she described as a ''fundamental overhaul of our intelligence structure and a sea change in our thinking."
The hearing was the first of at least 15 that will be held in the coming weeks.