Drawing on the CIA's expertise, the FBI has formed a new unit of intelligence analysts who already have prompted three recent terror warnings and focused investigative efforts on midlevel Al Qaeda members.
Officials told The Associated Press the analysts have developed a portrait of an Al Qaeda which is operating essentially with midlevel members carrying out attack plans as its more notorious leaders hide from the U.S. military.
The new analysts, several of whom have worked for the CIA, are interpreting raw intelligence in a way new to the FBI — focused on disrupting terrorists' plans even before agents meet the legal standards for arrests and prosecutions.
"You need to keep your analysts separate so that they can continue to mine information and continue to give you the global picture," said Pat Damuro, the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, who is overseeing the analysis effort.
The new analysts are not focused on specific cases, but rather "looking over the horizon" for emerging threats and trends, Damuro said.
Though only two months in the making, the new analysis unit has already made some public marks. It was responsible for three recent warnings sent by the FBI about possible terrorist plans, law enforcement officials said.
One warning went to scuba diving schools, advising owners to be wary of suspicious people buying large amounts of equipment and asking for instruction that might be useful in a terror attack.
In June, the analysts provided FBI officials with guidance that led to warnings to Jewish schools and synagogues and another warning to fuel depot operators about a possible attack scenario.
The analysis unit also has drawn an intelligence-driven portrait of an Al Qaeda terror organization that has changed after the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan.
"What we are seeing is the midlevel operatives are in the position to carry out attacks against Americans. We are coming up with a list of these people and together with the CIA are making them a high priority," a senior law enforcement official said.
Another senior U.S. official added, "The analysis indicates that the senior members are more concerned with not being killed or captured and the gravity for planning activity has gone down" the chain of command.
Both officials spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Combining foreign and domestic intelligence with information from Al Qaeda members in custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the new analysts are helping FBI field offices and foreign police identify midlevel Al Qaeda operatives and apprehend them before they can carry out attacks.
Officials this week stopped an American man in Denver whom they are holding as a material witness. They believe he may have taken computer equipment to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
The analyst team has been aided by a handful of senior CIA managers and 25 seasoned CIA analysts who have moved to the FBI to assist the early effort. The FBI already has about 100 recruits of its own in training.
When it is all done, the FBI hopes to have a team of 200 analysts looking for trends and patterns in terrorism, officials said.
"What we have here is a total reorganization of the counterterrorism program, tripling in size the counterterrorism division and increasing operational ability in the field," Damuro said. "This will help us to put the puzzle pieces together and give us other areas we need to target."
Those who watch the agency said the shift toward intelligence assessment could essentially create a new FBI.
"The agency has never had the ability to assess sophisticated intelligence in the way that the CIA can," said Donald Terrel, a former agent and a researcher at George Washington University. "The FBI historically has been kept from collecting and assessing information for fear that it would abuse the power. The CIA has also been reluctant to share information out of fear that it would become public in a court case. Now the FBI's hands are no longer tied."
The new analysts are intended to satisfy the FBI's need for staffers who piece together incoming intelligence and focus on understanding the big picture and helping set the agency's priorities, Damuro said.
"What happens is, every time you have a major case, like the first World Trade Center bombing, there is a massive shifting of resources into those investigations," he said.
"And if you don't have dedicated analysts (that can't be) shifted into a particular case — because everybody tends to want to be involved in the case work — you can lose sight of the larger picture."
The FBI's new emphasis will also cause a dramatic reorganization of headquarters, with hundreds of agents being relocated so they are nearest to the units and teams they interact with most, officials said.