President Bush's top national security advisers have begun discussing the creation of a domestic intelligence agency that would take over responsibility for counterterrorism spying and analysis from the FBI, according to U.S. government officials and intelligence experts cited by Saturday's Washington Post.
The high-level debate reflects a widespread concern that the FBI has been unable to transform itself from a law enforcement agency into an intelligence-gathering unit able to detect and thwart terrorist plans in the United States, the Post says.
The FBI has admitted it has not yet completed the cultural sea change necessary to turn its agents into spies, but the creation of a new agency is firmly opposed by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who has said he believes the bureau can do the job, the Post reports.
On Veterans Day, top national security officials gathered for two hours to discuss the issue in a meeting chaired by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Mueller and six others attended, the Post says.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was recently dispatched to London for a briefing on the fabled MI5, an agency empowered to collect and analyze intelligence within Britain, leaving law enforcement to the police.
Similarly, if another agency were created in the United States, it would not replace the FBI but would have the primary role in gathering and analyzing intelligence about Americans and foreign nationals in the United States, the Post explains.
A Bush administration spokesman, who asked the Post that he not be named, said no conclusions were reached about a domestic intelligence agency during the Veterans Day meeting.
He said an MI5-style agency was just one option considered. The official, and other Post sources knowledgeable about the issue, said the White House first wants to launch a new Department of Homeland Security, which would include an intelligence analysis division.
Any major change such as this would come later, government sources said to the Pot. More meetings on the subject are planned.
Some members of Congress have said they favor creating a domestic security agency and it is likely legislative proposals will be offered during the next Congress, the Post says.
"We're either going to create a working, effective, substantial domestic intelligence unit in the FBI or create a new agency," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "The results are dismal to this point."
He said creating a whole new agency "would be a big-ticket item from everyone's standpoint. We have to think this out carefully."
During the Veterans Day meeting, Mueller offered the same arguments about the FBI's structure that he has made in testimony on Capitol Hill, Post sources said. He has said the FBI is uniquely positioned to act as the United States' primary domestic intelligence agency, and that reforms implemented since the Sept. 11 attacks have made counterterrorism the bureau's primary goal.
But others in the meeting were not as convinced, citing the FBI's lack of progress to date and the inherent difficulties of retraining FBI agents who are accustomed to restrictions on domestic spying and prohibitions against gathering information on people who are not suspected of committing crimes.
The bureau worked hard to snuff out similar proposals earlier this year when the Homeland Security Department was first proposed.
But some former law enforcement officials such as George Terwilliger, a top official in President Bush's father's Justice Department, advocate creating a domestic intelligence agency that would combine FBI counterterror efforts with CIA and military operations. Keeping foreign and domestic terrorism intelligence operations separate is an "outdated notion," he told the Post. "Somebody needs to have ownership of the problem on a government-wide basis."
A number of outside intelligence experts and blue-ribbon panels recently have recommended radical overhauls of the United States' domestic intelligence structure.
In a preliminary report released this week, an advisory commission headed by former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore endorsed a new counterterrorism center made up of analysts now working for the CIA, FBI and other agencies. The center "would be responsible for the fusion of intelligence, from all sources, foreign and domestic, on potential attacks inside the United States," the commission said.
Mueller met with Gilmore prior to the report's release to try to persuade him not to recommend a separate intelligence agency, sources told the Post.
In October, a separate bipartisan panel of high-technology experts and former intelligence officials recommended that the proposed Homeland Security Department take over collection and analysis of intelligence from the FBI. The Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age found that "the FBI has no effective process for providing intelligence on terrorism to policymakers or others outside the law enforcement community."
The proposed Homeland Security Department, which was approved by the House this week and is awaiting Senate approval, would include a new analysis division that would receive and analyze terrorism-related reports from the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. But the new department would not collect intelligence data on its own and would not have access to original information except in special circumstances, administration officials have said.
I.C. Smith, a former FBI counterintelligence official, said there is no need to create a new intelligence gathering agency outside the FBI, or to turn over more duties to Homeland Security. Smith and many other current and former FBI officials argue that the bureau was renowned for its intelligence-gathering capabilities during the Cold War, though abuses led to restrictions on the bureau's powers.
"The FBI worked counterintelligence for decades and did it very, very well overall," Smith said. "It was able to bridge that gap between criminal investigations and intelligence operations. . . . The problem is not the structure; it's a failure of management to implement the resources they have."