The commission on weapons of mass destruction said Thursday it doubts the FBI’s ability to transform itself to deal with terrorist threats and urged lawmakers to consider creating a new domestic spy agency along the lines of Britain’s MI5.
The idea of creating an MI5 in the United States isn’t new, and was considered by the 9/11 Commission.
But that panel rejected the idea after FBI Director Robert Mueller and others argued that the FBI has a long history of handling civil- and privacy-rights concerns, and that separating intelligence activities from criminal investigations would create new walls that Mueller feared would inhibit government efforts to track terrorists.
Civil-liberties groups protest it would be difficult to rein in a domestic spy agency, and prevent spies from becoming entangled in political dissent or religious issues.
John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank that follows military and intelligence activities, said the idea of creating an agency like MI5 in the United States isn’t workable.
“We are citizens. We are not subjects,” Pike said, noting the differences in the American and British forms of government. “We have a Bill of Rights. They don’t.”
He said the danger is that a new national intelligence agency could develop into a secret police, with powers to establish its own guidelines of which political activities to monitor and which should be disrupted. “These are some of the stunts MI5 pulled on the IRA,” he said.
In its 618-page final report, which was submitted to the White House on Thursday, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction found that the FBI has made some progress since the 9/11 attacks in changing the focus of its investigations from traditional crimes toward thwarting terrorism, “but still has miles to go.”
The commission said the FBI’s 56 field offices have been resistant to change, and reported turf battles over sharing information are still raging between the FBI and the CIA.
The panel recommended that expanded powers over the FBI be given to President Bush’s proposed new intelligence czar, John Negroponte, but the commission said it doubted the ability of the FBI to reform itself over the long-term.
“Despite the many benefits associated with having a combined law-enforcement and intelligence agency, we recommend that policymakers re-evaluate the wisdom of creating a separate agency – an equivalent to the British MI5 – dedicated to intelligence collection in the United States should there be a continued failure to institute the reforms necessary to transform the FBI into the intelligence organization it must become,” the panel said.
Britain’s MI5 operates as a separate domestic intelligence agency that exchanges information with police, but is not itself involved in policing.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a Washington organization tracking civil-liberties issues involving the CIA and FBI, said she is troubled by the commission’s recommendation.
“Every single domestic intelligence agency in the world – and that includes MI5 – has ended up spying on its own citizens, and ended up in scandals, and missing the bad guys,” she said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he is including the commission’s recommendations in a review of the Justice Department counterterrorism efforts that he ordered shortly after taking office. The FBI said in a statement that it would study the report.
© Copyright 2005, Scripps Howard News Service