updated 6/17/2005 5:11:37 PM ET 2005-06-17T21:11:37

After new reports of FBI anti-terror blunders and persistent problems with bureau computer systems, an old idea has resurfaced: setting up a domestic intelligence agency separate from the FBI to deal with the terror threat.

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Two commissions that looked at intelligence failures — the Sept. 11 commission and a presidential panel — rejected the concept of an independent domestic intelligence agency, the U.S.-equivalent of Britain's MI5. But a presidential commission suggested in March that such an organization might be necessary if the FBI could not transform itself into a topflight intelligence service.

In recent weeks, fresh reports critical of the FBI have heightened concerns. The long-delayed release last week of the Justice Department inspector general's report on intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks criticized the FBI for its failure to uncover vital information that might have led agents to the hijackers.

"When we keep getting these negative reports about whether the FBI is meeting its responsibilities, in particular its new responsibility with regard to the war on terrorism, all I can say is they're failing and the leash is getting much shorter," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Grassley said he is not calling for stripping the FBI of its intelligence operations. "But the latest developments and reports cause me to look more seriously in that direction," he said.

Sept. 11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick said there were two major reasons the commission did not call for a domestic intelligence agency — civil liberties concerns about the government spying on Americans and a belief that FBI Director Robert Mueller would put reforms in place.

Increasing criticism of the FBI
The civil liberties issues haven't changed, but criticism of Mueller has increased, said Gorelick, deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

Another Democratic Sept. 11 panel member, former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, also said the issue is one of leadership, not the need for a new agency. "It's not just Mueller," Roemer said. "The president really needs to oversee the transformation of the FBI from a Mafia-fighting-centered institution to one that puts the highest priority on finding al-Qaida cells in the United States."

Mueller, testifying on Capitol Hill last month, told skeptical lawmakers he does not have an estimate of the cost of a new computer system to give the bureau an instantaneous and paperless way to manage all types of investigations. Mueller scrapped the bureau's Virtual Case File earlier this year at a loss of more than $100 million.

This month's first follow-up hearing by Sept. 11 commissioners since releasing their report last June dwelled on lingering problems in sharing intelligence, computer problems and FBI personnel issues, including a low regard within the bureau for counterterror analysts.

"I think that we have been taken aback collectively by the failure of the Virtual Case File," Gorelick said at last week's hearing.

Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who participated in the hearing, called the system "an unmitigated failure."

The FBI did not make anyone available for this article. But Mueller has been leading the charge in defense of his agency, which has hired hundreds of intelligence analysts and instituted widespread reforms since the terror attacks in 2001. He has unstintingly opposed loss of intelligence-gathering to a new agency.

Opening communication lines
When first suggested, proponents said it would make communications easier between intelligence agencies because it would remove from the equation the FBI's culture of working within the criminal justice system.

MI5 describes itself as Britain's defensive security intelligence agency. It cannot detain or arrest its targets but seeks "to gain the advantage over (them) by covertly obtaining information about them, which we can use to counter their activities."

Mueller has argued that both law enforcement and counterterrorism rely on the ability to gather intelligence, and that the FBI has first-rate investigative talents. Led by the Patriot Act, changes in federal law have made it easier to share information, he has said in one public appearance after another.

The FBI, while insisting that it has made progress, also acknowledges more remains to be done. Gorelick agreed. "The challenge is ensuring that the culture that breeds a good cop can also breed and nourish and train a good intelligence investigator," she said. "It's a tough challenge."

Richard Falkenrath, a former Bush national security aide who is now at the Brookings Institution, said he believes the FBI will retain its intelligence arm, despite the latest criticism. "The FBI is a sort of Teflon-coated agency," Falkenrath said. "Talk is cheap, but so far there's not any indication that the president or attorney general is dissatisfied."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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