With the FBI and CIA insisting on strict limits on the information they must share with the new Homeland Security Department, the Bush administration has begun to craft rules for the handling of intelligence in the hope of heading off conflict among the agencies responsible for protecting the United States from another terrorist attack.
For now, the intelligence agencies have persuaded the White House that information provided to the Homeland Security Department should be in the form of summary reports. Those summaries generally will not include raw intelligence or details on where or how the information was gathered, in order to protect sources and methods.
But defenders of the new department, which will consolidate 22 federal agencies early next year, say its analysts occasionally will need -- and receive -- access to a wider range of intelligence, including undigested classified information, to fulfill their primary mission of protecting the nation's infrastructure.
Access to information is likely to be a significant topic of debate in the formation of the new department, according to government officials and outside experts. Because the rules and procedures governing information sharing are not yet decided, officials said it is too early to tell how the debate might play out.
"The new agency succeeds or fails depending on whether it gets what it needs from the CIA and FBI," said Mary DeRosa, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who specializes in homeland defense issues. "There are strong incentives for FBI and CIA not to want a new player taking away their turf. . . . People in leadership will need to pay attention to this all the time."
Administration officials already are considering, for example, whether to include homeland security representatives as members of the 56 regional Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which oversee local terror investigations. That suggestion has sparked discussion over how much access to information those representatives should be granted, and to what extent the information should be shared with others at the Homeland Security Department, sources said.
The statute that created the new agency is not specific about how the department will obtain and analyze classified information. The law signed by President Bush last month appears to give Tom Ridge, the homeland security director who has been nominated to head the new department, the power to demand access to classified intelligence held by the FBI and CIA.
"Except as otherwise directed by the president, the secretary shall have such access as the secretary considers necessary to all information, including reports . . . and unevaluated intelligence relating to threats of terrorism," the statute reads. "The secretary may obtain such material upon request."
But administration officials said that in fact Ridge's department would receive undigested intelligence only when he makes the case for it under yet undefined procedures, and that these guidelines are to be laid out generally in presidential directives that are only now being drafted. No one yet knows who will broker any conflicts between the department and other agencies, or what criteria will be used to make such decisions, officials said.
At the FBI, the summaries will be compiled by a new contingent of "reports officers," who will be responsible for culling useful information about terrorist threats from raw intelligence for use by homeland security and other outside agencies. The process will be similar to that used by the CIA. Neither agency will be folded into the new Homeland Security Department.
At the new agency, analysts will try to speed the intelligence they receive -- information, for example, that al Qaeda operatives are thought to be casing government buildings -- to the federal and local security officials who can take appropriate action.
A number of officials at the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency have deep misgivings about distributing raw intelligence too widely, especially to a new and untested department. A number of officials and staff members on Capitol Hill also fear that internal squabbling could hinder the formation of the new department, and will contribute to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, tensions between existing intelligence units that authorities have been working to defuse.
"There has been a real reluctance to provide information or access to information; it would be naive to think that reluctance won't continue," said one Senate aide involved in the homeland security legislation. "There is real friction among these agencies. A lot of people want to put Homeland Security in a little box and not share too much with them."
Senior Bush administration officials play down the likelihood of discord, saying the intelligence issues are relatively minor and can be worked out. The new department's relationship with the CIA and FBI "will be a learning process as it moves forward," but it's "an unnecessary leap" to conclude that the disagreements will be serious, one administration official said.
The debate comes at a time of uncertainty over the future of the domestic counterterrorism effort, including growing concerns among some lawmakers and administration officials over the FBI's readiness to detect and prevent another attack. Senior White House officials have begun to discuss whether the FBI should turn over its counterterrorism responsibilities to a new domestic security agency.
The debate over information sharing essentially is a continuation of arguments that began immediately after President Bush unveiled his homeland security proposal last spring. Some administration officials and lawmakers suggested at the time that the new department should have unfettered access to raw intelligence data, such as information gathered by eavesdropping satellites operated by the supersecret NSA.
Intelligence officials worked quickly to quash such talk, arguing that sharing raw data was unwieldy and risky. However, a number of the new department's component agencies -- such as the Secret Service, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service -- will retain intelligence divisions that continue to gather classified data as they have for years. As a result, some officials said, the new agency will pose a bureaucratic threat to the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others.
As an example of what the future may hold, some officials point to a current case of interagency disagreement. The FBI and the Customs Service have been squabbling for months over Operation Green Quest, the mammoth Treasury-run task force that is investigating the funding of terror groups. Some FBI officials have pushed hard to gain control of the investigation, arguing that officials at Customs and its parent agency, the Treasury Department, do not have the counterterrorism expertise that the probe requires. Representatives from each side disparaged the other in private briefings with Congress, according to sources familiar with the meetings.
To end the dispute, administration officials have tentatively decided to leave responsibility for the Green Quest probe with Customs when that agency moves over to Homeland Security, while putting the FBI in charge of all other terrorism-related financial probes, sources said.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with a broad reorganization aimed at transforming the bureau into a counterterrorism agency, telling employees in one of his regular memos last week that "we're being called upon to take on added responsibilities and to view our role in different ways."
In terms of sharing information with the Department of Homeland Security, Mueller has repeatedly emphasized the need to cooperate in internal memos and comments to his top staff, according to sources familiar with his views. The White House has also made clear to the FBI and other agencies that collegiality is required, and that they are committed to avoiding showdowns.
"There are going to be bumps in the road; I would be lying if I said there weren't," one U.S. intelligence official remarked. "But we are prepared to work out most of those bumps."