President Bush's decision to create a new threat assessment center could dramatically remake the way the U.S. government analyzes and responds to terrorist threats, but it is also aimed at heading off even more drastic changes sought by some lawmakers, administration officials and intelligence experts said yesterday.
The Terrorist Threat Integration Center, announced by Bush during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, came under immediate attack from some on Capitol Hill and from civil liberties groups who argued either that the plan did not go far enough or that it goes too far in removing the historic distinctions between foreign and domestic intelligence.
Under the plan, the threat center will provide analysis of intelligence information gathered by the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security and will be staffed by top counterterrorism officials from each of those agencies. The center will be primarily responsible for relaying threat analysis to the president and for compiling the "daily threat matrix" that serves as the fulcrum for most intelligence decisions at the White House, officials said.
For the first time, one group will have the task of analyzing data gathered by U.S. agents in this country and overseas. The analysts will pore over transcripts of tape-recorded conversations, assess tips from FBI informants, scrutinize satellite photos of overseas weapons labs, study terrorism updates from foreign security agencies and read the confessions of al Qaeda prisoners.
The plan is a clear response from Bush to rising demands in Congress and the recommendations of various terrorism panels for improved information-sharing between federal agencies. The FBI and CIA, in particular, have come under heavy criticism for failing to communicate information that some lawmakers have said might have helped thwart the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The CIA, for example, delayed giving the FBI details about al Qaeda operatives who attended a terrorism strategy meeting in Malaysia in 2000 -- including two who had entered this country and later were among the 19 hijackers.
"The president believes that with the creation of this center he will be able to bring together all sources of intelligence in the United States, to deal with connecting the dots, if you will, on the threats that face us here on the homeland, as well as abroad," one senior government official said.
The move has been greeted with mixed reactions at the FBI, where Director Robert S. Mueller III is struggling against internal resistance and technological obstacles to transform the bureau into an agency focused on detecting and thwarting terrorism.
The plan also creates a new executive assistant director under Mueller who will focus on intelligence analysis. "It doesn't take away from the FBI," one senior administration official said. "It builds on Mueller's reforms."
Yet, according to some intelligence officials, the creation of the threat center shows that the administration is unhappy with the pace of change at the FBI and uncertain that Mueller's reforms will really take hold. The threat center would be overseen by the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, who is also director of the CIA.
"It's clearly a rebuke to the FBI and their lack of progress in transforming themselves," said one counterterrorism official who asked not to be named.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the threat center is a good idea, but that "there are a lot of unanswered questions about how this new center would interact with ongoing analytic efforts of the CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security."
Officials said the new Homeland Security department would receive assessments of threats from the new center and use them in helping to develop anti-terrorism measures.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.