The FBI, CIA, and lawmakers overseeing both are still sorting out President Bush’s proposal for a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center.
In his State of the Union address, Bush announced plans for a new intelligence center, under the direction of CIA Director George Tenet, that will analyze information from the Agency, FBI, Pentagon, and Department of Homeland Security and will be staffed by top counterterrorism officials from each of those agencies.
The analysts will measure the reliability of information from interrogated al Qaeda prisoners, study warnings from foreign law-enforcement and spy agencies, assess tips from informants, examine satellite photos, and read transcripts of wiretapped conversations. The center’s duties will include compiling the “daily threat matrix” that is instrumental to the president’s decisions in the war on terror. The center does not appear to need congressional approval because it is considered an expansion of the CIA, but Congress is likely to pass some sort of legislation about the creation, even if it’s just rubberstamping the president’s initiative.
“I think that my colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee will be very pleased and encouraged by this new initiative,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), the chair of the senate panel. “I believe that they will strongly support the president as our committee begins considering the appropriate legislation in the weeks ahead.”
Much of the early media coverage to the proposal centered on whether it represented a “win” for Tenet or a “loss” for FBI Director Robert Mueller. Tenet will appoint the head of the center, after consulting with Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“Obviously, the bureau will no longer be pre-eminent in domestic intelligence evaluation,” wrote Dan K. Thomasson, a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, in a column. “Somewhere, [former FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover is whirling like a dervish.”
For his part, Mueller is publicly downplaying any sense that the FBI sees the move as diminishing its authority.
“I believe the center will be a powerful mechanism to jointly analyze and digest threat information emanating from anywhere in the world — and ensure that all information on a particular threat is shared,” Mueller told reporters at FBI headquarters on Friday. “The center will be an important part of a transformed FBI, and better position us to prevent another terrorist attack.”
Michael Scardaville, a homeland-security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, thinks the FBI power-loss talk is overblown and that it misses the point of the new system.
“I think the FBI will still be the primary federal actors for collecting domestic intelligence,” Scardaville said. “The focus is not to downplay anyone’s role and bolster any other member, but to collaborate and make sure the analysis being conducted is complete. If you look at the results of the inquiries into the intelligence failure before 9/11, the primary story is that a lack of information sharing prevented anyone from doing sufficient analysis and taking action.”
Although almost every lawmaker has applauded the goal of fusing intelligence analysis from the FBI and CIA, Bush’s proposal has received scattered criticism from Capitol Hill Democrats.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions about how this new center would interact with ongoing analytic efforts of the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Harman she will judge the proposal on how well it ensures protections of the civil liberties of Americans, whether it adds layers of bureaucracy, and “how well it closes the gap between analysis of foreign and domestic intelligence on terrorism.”
Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat who is running for president, said he would prefer to see a domestic intelligence agency similar to those in Great Britain and Canada, but that is also “designed to safeguard individual liberties.”
“If the president is serious, he’d buck the FBI’s bureaucratic stonewalling and support my proposal to create a domestic intelligence agency that will focus solely on gathering intelligence on terrorists in this country, and get the job done right,” Edwards said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (also running for president) complained to the New York Times that while he agreed with the plan, the new center belonged under the Department of Homeland Security, not the CIA. (Lieberman is ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the new department, and not a member of the Senate’s intelligence panel.)
Scardaville said that while there’s a case to be made for having the new center under the Homeland Security Department, who it answers to will be much less important than the effect it has.
“In addition to breaking down the cultural wall that has always separated the FBI and CIA, this proposal is really forcing intelligence-sharing down the intelligence community’s throat,” Scardaville said. “They’ve made some progress on this since 9/11, but what the Bush administration is doing here is forcing people to share information, and it should really start to break down the cultural net effect of those differences, which is to not share information adequately.”
“All of the studies that have been done on terrorism — Hart-Rudman, the one we did here at the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institute’s study — they all say this is something that needs to be done,” Scardaville said. “I think the general public was a little surprised that we didn’t have this capability before 9/11.”
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several papers across the country, including the Boston Globe.