WASHINGTON – A domestic spy agency should be established to root out and prosecute suspected terrorists in the U.S., a federal commission proposed Monday.
The spy agency would function separately from the FBI, according to former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, head of the Advisory Panel to Assess the Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The National Counterterrorism Fusion Center would be based within the Department of Homeland Security. Intelligence gathering functions would be conducted by staff pulled from the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and state and local agencies. The center would also serve as an investigatory agency. The agency would then work closely with the FBI when agents needed prosecution warrants.
"The belief of our commission is that the counterterrorism function must be done and there is a sense that the FBI is primarily a law enforcement organization, its agents are recruited to be law enforcement agents. They are there to make cases that are looking backward in building cases toward a courtroom, not looking forward which is the idea of intelligence prevention," Gilmore said.
The new spy agency is one of 59 recommendations the commission has proposed in its fourth annual report to Congress. The panel, which was established in 1998 in response to the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and was supposed to last three years, has so far offered 79 recommendations in its three previous reports. Sixty-four have been adopted in whole or in part, Gilmore said.
The commission states in its recommendations that it wants to create a separate agency because "the FBI's long-standing law enforcement tradition and organizational culture persuade us that, even with the best of intentions, the FBI cannot soon be transformed into an organization dedicated to detecting and preventing terrorist attacks."
FBI Director Robert Mueller said in an interview last week that he opposes creating a new intelligence agency to focus on terrorism. He said the FBI is "uniquely positioned" to do the job because it could both detect the threat and arrest any individuals involved.
"There has to be a mechanism for deterring those individuals,'' Mueller said. "We have the same people who have knowledge of intelligence and knowledge of criminal activity being undertaken by these individuals.''
Gilmore said that he personally opposes the idea of a new agency and would rather build upon the work of the FBI, but the commission ruled that a separate agency is needed to prevent the appearance of a "secret police."
"If you take an organization that has arrest function and then you place it within a stepped up intelligence gathering organization against the terrorists, and you begin to put these things together, there is the risk that the arrest capacity together with the intelligence operation does begin to create more of a feeling towards a secret police. I don't believe anybody intends that outside of our commission and I don't think anybody intends that inside our commission, and therefore we stated it in our report so that we could underscore that we don't create anything like that," Gilmore said.
Gilmore said the commission included safeguards into its recommendation to help the agency prevent the appearance of its overstepping its jurisdictional and civil rules.
The agency would have a coordinating committee made of the CIA director, the secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security, the attorney general and the head of the new agency. It would also require better oversight from Congress, for which the agency proposed a new Senate and House committee strictly designed to address counterterrorism issues.
Gilmore also suggested that the agency would be kept in check by strict application of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act rules, already hotly disputed because of concerns that they infringe upon civil liberties.
"Finally, we believe this organization must adhere to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Attorney General guidelines and to all the other restrictions that have been placed on intelligence organizations so we can make sure that we are focusing on enemies here in the country and not regular Americans," Gilmore said.
FISA rules were expanded as part of the USA PATRIOT Act passed by Congress near the end of 2001 to allow law enforcement greater latitude to investigate possible terrorists in the United States. Opponents fear the FISA rules will allow law enforcement to obliterate civil liberties in its pursuit of terrorists.
The FISA court, set up in 1978 to grant secret warrants for foreign surveillance cases, already allows agents to enter people's homes and search them without consent. A federal court ruled last month that law enforcement can employ wiretapping and surveillance tools permitted in FISA to domestic criminals as well as suspected foreign terrorists.
Among other recommendations, the commission proposed that lawmakers and Bush administration officials spend more time on developing the structure of the new Department of Homeland Security and assessing the threat to the nation's food supply, critical infrastructure and cybersystems.
Gilmore said that more attention must be devoted to evaluating the threat of conventional weapons, rather than weapons of mass destruction.
"That remains to be a higher probability," he said.
Gilmore did acknowledge that a smallpox threat is being adequately addressed with the administration's vaccination plan. He added that the administration must measure how effectively the vaccination plan is achieving its goals over time.