Bush Sees Need for Reorganizing U.S. Intelligence

Posted in Other | 15-Apr-04 | Author: David Johnston| Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON, April 12 — President Bush said Monday that "now may be a time to revamp and reform our intelligence services," opening the way for consideration of changes at the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and other agencies.

The Bush administration has not acted on a number of far-reaching proposals to reorganize the government's intelligence organizations, including recommendations made last year by a Congressional inquiry into the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and other independent intelligence panels.

Expanding the powers of the director of central intelligence and establishing a domestic intelligence agency like the MI5 in Britain are among ideas now circulating in Washington as the independent commission looking into the attacks holds hearings and prepares to make its own recommendations.

Mr. Bush, speaking to reporters at his ranch in Texas at an appearance with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, did not mention any specific changes but said he looked forward to receiving the commission's proposals. "We're thinking about that ourselves and we look forward to working with the commission," he said.

The president's comments are an indication that he is turning attention to intelligence matters at a moment when the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are under intense criticism by the commission.

Draft reports by the commission say Attorney General John Ashcroft did not deeply involve himself in counterterrorism issues before Sept. 11, despite intelligence warnings that summer that Al Qaeda could be planning a large attack in the United States, panel officials and others who have seen the reports have said.

Aides to Mr. Ashcroft, who is scheduled to testify before the commission on Tuesday, say he will tell the panel that he was briefed throughout the year on terrorist threats and was never informed, by either the F.B.I. or the C.I.A., that he needed to take special action, because intelligence reports suggested that any attack would be overseas.

The president said that the commission hearings — at which witnesses have at times depicted Mr. Bush and his advisers as out of touch in the summer of 2001 — were a "good thing, particularly when they address weaknesses in the system."

On Tuesday, the commission will resume its hearings with two days of testimony by former and current F.B.I. and C.I.A. officials that will focus on the performance of the country's law enforcement and intelligence agencies before the attacks.

The commission's investigation has already turned up evidence that the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. failed to grasp the significance of warnings of possible attacks and failed to share information that might have led the agencies to detect the Sept. 11 plot in the summer of 2001.

In response, the commission seems certain to embrace proposals for change that have been discussed in national security circles since the attacks. One of the most far-reaching would strip the F.B.I. of its authority over counterespionage and counterterrorism, replacing it with a domestic intelligence agency modeled on MI5, which functions as an internal security service but has no law enforcement powers.

A senior Bush administration official said Monday that the president had discussed the subject with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, but had not settled on a new approach. "They talk about it; there is a focus on the issue," the official said. "But I don't think it is there yet."

Other administration officials said Ms. Rice had privately expressed considerable skepticism that an MI5 structure would work in the United States and was seeking alternative steps.

These officials said the president and Ms. Rice were seeking substantive change that went beyond shuffling the organization charts of the country's intelligence agencies. At the same time, they want to find a proposal that would have strong support in Congress.

Some national security experts have suggested less-extreme steps to reorganize the F.B.I. One proposal would create a semiautonomous intelligence and counterterrorism agency within the bureau, with a separately hired and trained group of agents who would have access to the bureau's criminal files.

Other proposals would create a new domestic security agency within the Department of Homeland Security and would establish a similar agency under the director of central intelligence but subject to legal control by the attorney general.

A commission headed by Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, recommended that the director of central intelligence be given budget authority over all of the agencies involved in intelligence, a move the Pentagon has long resisted.

Robert M. Bryant, a former F.B.I. deputy director, was part of a group of senior intelligence, law enforcement and Pentagon officials who last year proposed the creation of a separate counterintelligence and counterterrorism service within the bureau.

Mr. Bryant said it would be a mistake to take away the bureau's authority over domestic intelligence. "It would take you 10 years to create a new intelligence agency," he said. "You don't want to change teams in the middle of the Super Bowl. You're better off to work with what you've got, to fund it and make it better."

After the 2001 attacks, Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, put in motion a series of steps that he said were intended to shift the bureau's focus to the prevention of terrorism and away from its traditional orientation on arrests and convictions.

Mr. Mueller centralized the bureau's counterterror operations and strengthened its ability to gather information about terrorist threats by adding analysts, language specialists and agents trained in counterterrorism. He set up an office of intelligence within the bureau and expanded the intelligence capabilities of its 56 field offices. He also began an upgrade of the F.B.I.'s antiquated computer systems.

F.B.I. officials said the bureau was now functioning as a domestic intelligence agency with agents who, unlike intelligence officers, were experienced at working inside the United States within the framework of constitutional liberties and privacy rights. Bureau officials have said that criminal investigations are a highly effective means of gathering intelligence about other plots.

F.B.I. officials said they hoped that the changes ordered by Mr. Mueller as well as the Bush administration's creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, where F.B.I. agents worked alongside analysts from the C.I.A. and the Pentagon, would restore confidence in the government's ability to assemble and analyze information about terrorism threats. They also said they hoped the measures would keep the bureau intact.

But neither the Bush administration nor the F.B.I. has been able to stop the flow of proposals by lawmakers and blue-ribbon panels. Last year, the joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees concluded that the idea of a domestic security agency should be re-examined and called for a cabinet-level director of intelligence.

In her testimony last week before the commission, Ms. Rice acknowledged that before the 2001 attacks the government was not equipped to detect and analyze terrorist threats properly.

"The real lesson of Sept. 11 is that the country was not properly structured to deal with the threat that had been gathering for a long period of time," she said. "I think we're better structured today than we ever have been. We've made a lot of progress. But we want to hear what further progress we can make."