FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday proposed the creation of an intelligence service within the FBI that would have its own director and budget and would operate separately from other parts of the law enforcement agency.
Such a move would mark a substantial shift in the operations of the tradition-bound FBI. It is aimed in large part at heading off proposals that would strip the bureau of its responsibilities for intelligence and espionage investigations in the United States and turn them over to a new agency akin to Britain's domestic intelligence service.
The plan comes as the Bush administration is considering a broad reorganization of the CIA and the rest of the nation's sprawling intelligence bureaucracy. FBI officials said yesterday it was a coincidence that the plan, which has been in the works for months, was unveiled on the same day that the resignation of CIA Director George J. Tenet was announced.
Under the proposal, outlined by Mueller during a hearing of a House subcommittee, the FBI would create a "directorate of intelligence" with clear authority over all FBI intelligence activities, including language translators and analysts. The restructuring "will help us forecast future threats and drive the allocation of resources and the development of investigative and intelligence strategies to support the FBI's mission," Mueller said in a statement.
"A strong intelligence service within the FBI . . . leverages our formidable collection capabilities" and will improve the sharing of information with police departments and other intelligence agencies, Mueller said.
Mueller did not provide lawmakers with cost estimates or many details, and FBI officials said it is too early to predict what the price of the restructuring might be. Many of the steps involved in creating such a service would require congressional approval and are likely to be included in House appropriations legislation later this year, officials said.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, State, justice and the judiciary, first proposed the "service-within-a-service" several months ago and had strongly encouraged the FBI to endorse the idea. Wolf said in an interview yesterday that a restructuring would "keep the country from facing another 9/11" by improving the FBI's ability to collect, analyze and share counterterrorism intelligence.
"I'm very hopeful that this kind of organization will help us prevent another terrorist attack," Wolf said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration has overseen the creation of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security, which has its own intelligence unit, as well as an alphabet soup of other intelligence entities. They include the FBI-run Terrorist Screening Center and the CIA-led Terrorist Threat Integration Center. Mueller said in his statement yesterday that the FBI counterterrorism functions that are based at the TTIC would be part of the proposed new intelligence service.
Mueller's plan does not go as far as proposals by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and others to create an entirely separate domestic spying agency, akin to Britain's MI5. The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has also debated whether to endorse the creation of an MI5-style agency in its final report, but members have indicated recently that most of them have soured on the idea.
Earlier this year, a half-dozen current and former senior officials, including Mueller, Tenet and former attorney general Janet Reno, condemned proposals for an MI5-style intelligence agency.
Mueller said yesterday that wresting domestic intelligence responsibilities from the FBI would lead to more roadblocks in the sharing of vital national security information within the government and could invite abuses of civil liberties. "Gathering intelligence has to be done within the Constitution," Mueller said. "Our agents understand that. In the past, we've gotten into trouble when collecting intelligence for the sake of collecting intelligence."
James B. Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy national security adviser, said the Mueller proposal is "clearly second best" to an MI5-style intelligence agency, which he favors. Steinberg said he remains concerned that intelligence functions are not valued highly enough within the FBI.
"What you can't have is a situation where they are second-class citizens within the bureau, where the 'real' agents are the ones out chasing criminals," Steinberg said. "That's the real challenge."
I. Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said the idea appears to be "the flavor of the month" for reforming the U.S. intelligence community.
"Everyone is agreed that there needs to be a uniform direction and focus for intelligence, but it seems like every month a new agency is created to address the problem," Greenberger said. "There needs to be one person in charge of coordinating intelligence within the government, but instead the president has let a thousand flowers bloom."
Staff writer Stephen Barr contributed to this report.