The FBI is conducting intelligence operations abroad without notifying colleagues at the CIA and State Department, current and former government officials say.
Intelligence veterans say coordination is crucial, ensuring that the ambassador and CIA station chief in a given country can organize U.S. government activities and prevent diplomatic blunders or conflicting intelligence missions.
FBI officials acknowledge there have been some instances when agents failed to notify the CIA about their activities, but consider the cases anomalies. Intelligence officials see the communication problems as potentially significant.
CIA and FBI officials, none of whom would speak on the record for this report, declined to say where the breakdowns have occurred. But a former intelligence official with knowledge of the situation said problems have arisen in Germany and elsewhere. The former official spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Talking, not tripping
Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, said the communication problems illustrate that coordination remains a concern that must be resolved by senior administration officials, including the new national intelligence director. The White House has been searching for a nominee to fill the vacancy for over eight weeks.
“We don’t want to see undercover agents tripping over each other and conducting operations that are wasteful, duplicative or even dangerous,” Ben-Veniste said.
CIA Director Porter Goss and FBI Director Robert Mueller are expected to face questions on a number of issues Wednesday when they discuss global threats against the United States before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The FBI’s intelligence role has expanded dramatically since the Sept. 11 attacks, which the commission blamed in part on poor communication among government agencies. President Bush’s budget proposal asks for money for the FBI to hire 500 additional intelligence analysts.
In addition, the FBI is expanding its legal attache program, now operating in 52 foreign countries. The attaches’ primary role is to foster cooperation with foreign counterparts in support of the FBI’s domestic law enforcement mission.
Tension at embassies
But their presence in more U.S. embassies also is a source of friction with the CIA, which has not had to deal with them before, said an FBI official who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
For its part, the FBI says it has no desire to usurp the CIA’s role as the leading U.S. intelligence agency on foreign soil, even as it increases its intelligence capabilities.
However, a senior FBI official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, acknowledged there have been “anecdotal situations” where agents have not provided advance notification.
The FBI’s proposed 2006 budget asks for $11.4 million to hire 60 new employees, including seven agents, to open a legal attache’s office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The budget also calls for the expansion of eight existing legal attache offices around the world.
The CIA’s station chief traditionally has been responsible for coordinating all intelligence activity in a country. “This function protects our national interests by eliminating the potential for confusion or miscommunication,” said a CIA official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The National Security Act of 1947 created the CIA and charged it with providing accurate and timely foreign intelligence to senior policy-makers.
But the intelligence reform bill that the president signed into law late last year directed the FBI to bolster its intelligence activities, spurring talks between the two agencies about how to coordinate intelligence activities.
They are at work on an update to a 1982 agreement that established the CIA’s primacy in terrorism and counterterrorism matters, the FBI official said. “That memorandum of understanding is outdated, especially since 9/11,” the official said.
Officials are considering ways to avoid duplication domestically, particularly as the CIA and the FBI approach foreigners in the United States. One concern is that the agencies could gather information from the same source, giving the appearance that the agencies have corroborating information.
But the attention on FBI and CIA coordination overseas indicates the roots of the problem are broader than domestic issues alone.
CIA and FBI officials declined to speak on the record about the discussions and the broader issues surrounding them because the agencies are in a confidential dialogue and the specifics are classified.
State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said the department doesn’t discuss intelligence issues.