updated 2/25/2004 6:22:56 PM ET 2004-02-25T23:22:56

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a new effort Wednesday to harness and direct intelligence-gathering among key Justice Department agencies, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Prisons.

The purpose of the Joint Intelligence Coordinating Council, Ashcroft said, is to ensure thousands of law enforcement personnel worldwide are focused on collecting and analyzing intelligence useful in the war against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

The council will prevent law enforcement agencies from taking a more scattershot approach or pursuing their own agendas, he said. It also will provide direction to some 670,000 state and local law enforcement personnel.

“It’s not just what’s easiest to collect,” Ashcroft told reporters. “We need to make sure we collect what we have a need for.”

Creation of the new council is the latest in a series of moves by the Bush administration to improve intelligence collection, analysis and information-sharing since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI, CIA and other agencies have been faulted repeatedly for intelligence and communications missteps that might have prevented those attacks.

President Bush last year set up the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a joint FBI-CIA entity that brings together, analyzes and disseminates terrorism intelligence for the U.S. government. The FBI also last year launched the Terrorist Screening Center to combine terror watch lists now scattered among multiple federal agencies.

Critics say all these moves toward coordination and integration are still slow in coming. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., pointed out Wednesday that it will take until the end of 2004 for the watch lists to be fully combined under the Bush administration’s own estimates.

“I cannot fathom why this consolidation has not yet occurred, when we know full well the dangers to which a lack of intelligence coordination exposes us,” said Lieberman, the senior Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Running the new Justice council will be Maureen Baginski, the FBI’s top intelligence official and before that was a veteran official at the National Security Agency. The council chairmanship will rotate among the various Justice law enforcement agencies.

Ashcroft said law enforcement has a unique ability to gather intelligence because it can prosecute people and threaten them with prison. Giving law enforcement agents unified marching orders could help exploit what he called “a mother lode of intelligence” that can be gleaned from criminal defendants and suspects.

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