IN MORE NORMAL times, a presidential decision to rearrange the structure of domestic intelligence gathering would be a big deal. Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, this country has seen the organizational charts of governmental counterterrorism efforts rearranged so extensively that President Bush's shuffling of the FBI's intelligence and counterterrorism authorities last week was almost a ho-hum event: Another day, another reorganization of American government.
But Mr. Bush's reforms of the FBI, which follow recommendations from a commission he appointed to study intelligence failures concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, are potentially profound and warrant public attention. In critical respects, they take the bureau in the right direction. The first question is whether they go far enough or whether they will end up being merely shifted boxes on the government's organizational chart. The second question is whether, in one particular area, they go too far.
The president has directed that the FBI's key national security functions -- counterterrorism, counterintelligence and intelligence gathering -- be consolidated into a single National Security Service headed by a high-level bureau official. The integration of these functions, all of which are now partly under the jurisdiction of the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it will give the director a single hierarchy over whose chief he will have veto power. Moreover, in a world in which counterterrorism so dominates intelligence operations and collection, creating a unified national security infrastructure in the bureau seems like common sense.
A great part of the challenge of reforming the FBI since Sept. 11 has been transforming its law enforcement culture -- rooted in the collection of evidence for criminal prosecution -- into a credible intelligence organization capable of compiling, analyzing and sharing a far broader swath of information than might be useful for criminal purposes. If the FBI is to develop critical mass as an intelligence agency in the long run, creating a unified national security effort within it is a necessary part of the picture.
Whether this transformation is ultimately possible, however, remains an open question. The bureau has made more headway in developing intelligence capability than its fiercer critics acknowledge, but it remains, in its heart and soul, a police force. This culture may simply be too deeply rooted to be changed. At present, however, creating a domestic intelligence service is politically dicey; the step would have significant civil liberties implications and could create gaps in effectiveness that terrorists could exploit. Consequently, there is little choice but to proceed as the administration is proceeding -- that is, reform the bureau with an ongoing eye to whether the project is, at the end of the day, a fool's errand.
The other concern about Mr. Bush's order is that it potentially gives the director of national intelligence, a politically appointed intelligence official who works directly for the president, too much power over day-to-day operations of FBI agents. The president's memorandum requires the government to "develop procedures" by which the director of national intelligence can "communicate with the FBI's field offices" through the new head of the National Security Service. Whether this presents a problem depends entirely on what these procedures turn out to be. It is essential that FBI agents collecting intelligence domestically are not directed by the White House or top administration officials but, rather, by the FBI director overseen by the attorney general. In implementing the president's order, the administration must remember that whatever agency is responsible for domestic intelligence must be kept independent of politics.