WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says he doubts the Bush administration would create a domestic intelligence agency separate from the FBI. But some senators seemed open to the idea, skeptical about whether the bureau can fill the spying role.
Ridge, appearing on television talk shows Sunday, also played down as "really nothing new" an alleged statement from Al Qaeda threatening new terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Meanwhile, the Senate, meeting in an unusual postelection session, could vote as soon as Monday to create a Department of Homeland Security. Ridge declined to say whether he wants to run the new Cabinet department, but a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said the former Pennsylvania governor is President Bush's choice.
Ridge said his recent visit to MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency, was "very revealing," but that the powers the British agency wields would be unacceptable under the U.S. Constitution.
He said he thought it unlikely the administration would create a similar agency. He noted, as did several senators, that FBI Director Robert Mueller is working under orders from Bush to reorganize the FBI to improve domestic intelligence gathering.
"I don't think you're going to see a similar organization be developed in this country," Ridge said in a televised interview. "That's not to say that not on a regular basis we don't sit down and see how we can improve our intelligence-gathering capacity domestically and how we share it."
Some top senators appeared open to creating such an agency; others urged caution.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the FBI isn't doing the job yet and he isn't sure that it can.
"If they don't, we're going to have to look somewhere else," he said. "We're either going to have to create a domestic intelligence service, by standing alone, or we're going to have to put it into (the Department of) Homeland Security if the FBI doesn't measure up."
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the intelligence panel's outgoing chairman, agreed. But he said a war with Iraq would delay any reorganization of the nation's domestic intelligence capabilities.
"Once we get past this period of immediate threat, whenever that may be, I think we ought to look seriously at an alternative, which is to do as the British and many other nations have done, and that is to put their domestic intelligence in a non-law enforcement agency," Graham said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged caution, saying a lot has been done in the name of national security, mostly in the 20th century, that the country has later regretted.
He said on Sunday that the idea for such an agency "would have to be sold to a majority of Congress before the first steps are taken."
Ridge, meantime, dismissed the importance of an alleged statement by Al Qaeda threatening terror attacks on New York and Washington. "We're familiar with that piece of information. There are no new threats. There are the same old conditions," Ridge told Fox News Sunday. "It's just part of the continuing threat environment that we assess. It's really nothing new."
On other matters, the homeland security chief:
— Sidestepped questions about surveillance of Iraqis in the United States, reported by The New York Times, in an attempt to identify possible terrorist threats posed by sympathizers of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
— Took issue with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who said the administration's inability to catch Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden raises questions about "whether or not we are winning the war on terror." Bin Laden is the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Washington.
Ridge said the military has basically liberated Afghanistan and disrupted Al Qaeda training camps, and that the United States and its allies have frozen more than $100 million in terrorist network assets and detained nearly 2,700 people for questioning, among other efforts.
"We will get bin Laden, we're committed to that," Ridge vowed.
— Said an unidentified senior Al Qaeda leader now in American custody after being captured overseas is helping U.S. officials.