By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/13/2004 7:24:51 PM ET 2004-04-13T23:24:51

It remains one of the biggest 9/11 “what-if’s”

Suppose the FBI had connected up the July 2001 memo from a Phoenix agent, wondering whether Osama bin Laden might be sending students to U.S. flight schools with information about the arrest a month later, at a Minnesota jet simulator, of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

Thoughts like that have prompted calls for a new, independent agency to gather domestic intelligence.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., drafted a bill a year ago to do just that and take the mission away from the FBI “because their priority is investigation and prosecution — law enforcement — they’re less likely to share information that they get, may not even recognize it as important intelligence information.”

Supporters of the idea note that only two out of the 17 weeks of new FBI agent training is spent on intelligence.  It takes an entirely different culture, they say, to analyze where new unseen dangers will come from.

The British model
Some suggest Britain’s security service, MI-5, as a possible model.  Its sole job is gathering intelligence through wiretaps, surveillance and informants. It leaves the law enforcement to police, who make arrests.

A former MI-5 analyst, Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, says its single focus is a plus. “It’s the concentration on intelligence, I think, which makes it so effective,” Trenear-Harvey said. “And indeed in the current climate of counterterrorism, it is intelligence on the suspects that is the most important thing.”

But former Attorney General Janet Reno on Tuesday said that’s a bad idea. “The worst thing you can do is create another agency,” Reno said. “And then we’ll be back talking about whether they can share here or there or what.  Let’s try to work through it.”

Closing ranks
Defenders of the FBI say criminal investigators often come up with valuable leads and can better get useful information from state and local police.  They say FBI Director Robert Mueller is changing the culture, making terror prevention the top priority.

And a former head of counter-terror at the FBI says now is not the time for drastic change, “It’s a very dangerous time right now, particularly given what’s happening in Spain and some other places in the world.  Do we really want to disable our agencies that are critical to protecting the country right now,” asked Larry Medford.

Despite the calls for change, many terrorism experts doubt the mission will be taken away from the FBI — unless the country is hit with another devastating attack.

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