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U.S. weighs new agency based on British model

Chicago Tribune
April 9, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Does the Federal Bureau of Investigation's alleged weaknesses in gathering, sharing and acting on information about terrorist suspects in the United States require the creation of a new domestic intelligence agency based on the British model?

That question, which has circulated in the nation's capital since the Sept. 11 attacks revealed serious flaws in the FBI's intelligence capabilities, arose again Thursday during National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the blue-ribbon panel investigating the terrorist attacks.

Fred Fielding, a commission member and a lawyer in two Republican administrations, asked Rice to provide at a later date her analysis of whether such a new domestic intelligence agency is needed. Based on comments by some of the panel's members, it's widely thought that one of their final recommendations will be to establish such an agency.

In the past the White House has questioned the need for a new agency, as have others. Still, Rice left the door ajar, saying, "We also have to be open to see what more needs to be done."

Critics said that setting up a new agency wouldn't necessarily make investigators and bureaucrats more willing to share intelligence information. And creating a new bureaucratic entity is complex, they said.

`Staggeringly complicated'

"Starting a new agency is staggeringly complicated," said one former intelligence agency official, citing the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.

"If you compare the FBI to some ideal MI5 that could be parachuted into the suburbs of Washington and immediately start work, the FBI doesn't look so good," he said. "But there is no such thing." Starting a new agency would be "very difficult."

"On balance it's a bad idea," said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group for privacy and civil liberty issues.

Besides civil liberties and constitutional concerns that could arise from a domestic intelligence agency conducting surveillance of protest groups, Dempsey believes a new agency would only make things worse.

"It aggravates what was one of the major problems of pre-9/11 which was a sharing problem," he said. "Because it creates yet another agency collecting information and then being able to decide when to share, whether to share with whom to share."

MI5, for its part, has periodically drawn criticism for not passing along important information, Dempsey said.

Founded as part of the British Military Intelligence Directorate, MI5 collects and analyzes intelligence on domestic security threats and shares it with law-enforcement agencies. Britain's secretive foreign intelligence agency is known as MI6.

The desire for a new U.S. domestic intelligence agency modeled on MI5 has been spurred by, among other factors, the FBI's failures before the attacks.

`Structural' problems blamed

Controversy erupted in 2002 when it was disclosed that FBI agents in the Phoenix and Minneapolis field offices had raised questions about suspected terrorists who were taking flying lessons in the weeks and months before Sept. 11. The field offices forwarded their concerns to FBI headquarters, which failed to act on the information.

Such mistakes, as well as the failure of the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI to share information, led Rice on Thursday to repeatedly blame the pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures on "structural" problems.

"In hindsight," Rice said "if anything might have helped stop Sept. 11, it would have been better information on the threats inside the U.S--something made very difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law-enforcement and intelligence agencies."

Some of those problems have been addressed through the creation of the Homeland Security Department, which combined 22 federal agencies, including those that oversee immigration and border control.

But many critics have said the new department doesn't solve the problem because the FBI is still part of the Justice Department, the CIA is an independent agency and old bureaucratic habits die hard.

What's more, critics say, the FBI remains at its core a law-enforcement agency.

"The culture of FBI, including its law-enforcement-oriented approach to intelligence, may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to necessary intelligence reforms," said a report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

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