Questions remain about the FBI’s ability to transform itself into an effective domestic intelligence agency geared to prevent terrorism, congressional researchers have concluded. They say one alternative is creation of a new standalone agency to do the job.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, in a report made public Wednesday, noted the FBI has taken numerous steps to address shortcomings apparent after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. These include increasing intelligence operations, centralizing control of national security cases at FBI headquarters and enhancing recruitment and training of analysts.
But the report said doubts remain about whether the FBI can truly pivot from its long history as a law enforcement agency focused on arresting criminals to an agency that collects and uses intelligence to stop terrorist before they strike.
“The culture of the FBI, including its law enforcement-oriented approach to intelligence, may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to necessary intelligence reforms,” the CRS report said. “Some argue that the pace and scope of reform may be too slow and not radical enough.”
Maureen Baginski, the FBI’s chief of intelligence, said in an interview that the bureau has come very far in a short time in building its intelligence capability. Each of the bureau’s 56 field offices now has a contingent devoted to intelligence and every morning at headquarters top FBI officials who oversee all of its programs meet to discuss intelligence arising from the day’s threats, investigations, events and other activities.
“I know what I need to find out to better protect the country,” said Baginski, who came to the FBI in May 2003 after 25 years at the eavesdropping National Security Agency.
Five options, no recommendations
The report lays out five options for Congress to consider but stops short of endorsing any. The alternatives range from supporting the ongoing intelligence reforms pushed by FBI Director Robert Mueller to creating a new, standalone domestic intelligence service.
The report comes a week before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath is scheduled to take testimony from current and former Justice Department and FBI officials. Commission members will consider whether to recommend any changes in the FBI’s domestic intelligence role in the panel’s final report.
A commission recommendation to remove domestic intelligence from the FBI could prompt fresh efforts in Congress to create a new spy agency, national security experts say.
James B. Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser to President Clinton, said it is far from certain that a single agency can adequately enforce federal laws and collect intelligence.
“The truth is, we do need a good federal law enforcement agency. It’s not clear that having these two together is going to be good for law enforcement or good for intelligence,” said Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
Some oppose another agency
Thus far, any plan to create a new domestic spy agency has run into opposition from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well as the Bush administration. Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said many lawmakers are uncomfortable with creating a new agency with broad surveillance powers on Americans.
“Establishment of a domestic spy agency outside of what we have now with the FBI would seriously infringe on civil liberties by giving the government a gigantic new eye to spy on people, whether or not they were suspected of committing a crime,” Edgar said. “As of now, I think this idea is a political orphan.”
Baginski, who will testify before the commission next week, said it would be difficult for a new domestic intelligence agency to duplicate the FBI’s manpower and ability to collect information nationwide. She noted that state and local authorities also are key intelligence collectors with whom the FBI has a long-established relationship.
The FBI’s law enforcement powers — overseen by courts to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights — put it in a unique position to gather intelligence, Baginski said. The key is ensuring that FBI agents and analysts adequately share what they find out, both with other agencies and among themselves, she said.
“In the past, we looked at information as being owned by the person who initially collected it or produced it,” Baginski said. “We have to learn to let go of that information, because none of us alone can act meaningfully on that information.”