An Intelligence Giant in the Making

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By Jim McGee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2001

Molded by wartime politics and passed a week and a half ago in furious haste, the new anti-terrorism bill lays the foundation for a domestic intelligence-gathering system of unprecedented scale and technological prowess, according to both supporters and critics of the legislation.

Overshadowed by the public focus on new Internet surveillance and "roving wiretaps" were numerous obscure features in the bill that will enable the Bush administration to make fundamental changes at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and several Treasury Department law enforcement agencies.

Known as the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the law empowers the government to shift the primary mission of the FBI from solving crimes to gathering domestic intelligence. In addition, the Treasury Department has been charged with building a financial intelligence-gathering system whose data can be accessed by the CIA.

Most significantly, the CIA will have the authority for the first time to influence FBI surveillance operations inside the United States and to obtain evidence gathered by federal grand juries and criminal wiretaps. "

We are going to have to get used to a new way of thinking," Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, who is overseeing the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, said in an interview. "What we are going to have is a Federal Bureau of Investigation that combines intelligence with effective law enforcement."

The new law reflects how profoundly the attacks changed the nation's thinking about the balance between domestic security and civil liberties. The bill effectively tears down legal fire walls erected 25 years ago during the Watergate era, when the nation was stunned by disclosures about presidential abuses of domestic intelligence-gathering against political activists.

The overwhelming support in Congress shows that the nation's political leadership was persuaded that intelligence-gathering can no longer be restricted by the reforms that emerged out of a landmark 1975 Senate investigation.

After wading through voluminous evidence of intelligence abuses, a committee led by Sen. Frank Church warned that domestic intelligence-gathering was a "new form of governmental power" that was unconstrained by law, often abused by presidents and always inclined to grow.

One reform that grew out of the Church hearings was the segregation within the FBI of the bureau's criminal investigation function and its intelligence-gathering against foreign spies and international terrorists.

The new anti-terrorism legislation foreshadows an end to that separation by making key changes to the law underpinning it, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

"They have had to divide the world into the intelligence side and law enforcement," Chertoff said. The new law "should be a big step forward in changing the culture."

FISA allows the FBI to carry out wiretaps and searches that would otherwise be unconstitutional. Unlike regular FBI criminal wiretaps, known as Title IIIs, the goal is to gather intelligence, not evidence. To guard against abuse, the attorney general had to certify to a court that the "primary purpose" of the FISA wiretap was to listen in on a specific foreign spy or terrorist.


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© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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