WASHINGTON – FBI Director Robert Mueller denied speculation Thursday that President Bush has announced a new overarching intelligence agency because the FBI is still not up to snuff in gathering intelligence to prevent terror attacks 16 months after Sept. 11.
"The concept of a combined analytical center was not thrust upon us. It is something I believe in," Mueller said, adding that the president has recognized fundamental, positive changes that have taken place inside the FBI over the past 18 months.
The Terrorist Threat Integration Center was introduced by Bush in his State of the Union address Tuesday. Its goal is to be the central fusion point where intelligence information is sent, analyzed and disseminated to the proper officials.
The FBI, CIA and other intelligence corners of the federal government came under the microscope after the Sept. 11 attacks, with many lawmakers chastising them for not being diligent enough when it came to obtaining and analyzing vital intelligence information in a timely manner. The agencies also came under fire for not sharing information between the silo-like components of the federal bureaucracy.
Intelligence information regarding the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, was not decoded until Sept. 12.
"Today, we are a changed organization," Mueller told reporters Thursday during a two-hour briefing on the technology needed to boost the bureau's antiterrorism capabilities. "We are stronger and we are better focused. I believe we have made monumental strides in a number of key areas which will help make us the counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and criminal agency we need to be to best protect the American people."
With the advent of the TTIC, the FBI is enjoying upgrades to its other state-of-the-art gadgets to enhance its electronic information collection and analysis systems. It's no secret that its computer system "Trilogy" and other technology used at the FBI have been well behind the sophistication level of the threats the United States faces.
Mueller and other FBI officials gave reporters a live demonstration at the Strategic Information Operations Center on the bureau's new Virtual Case File. The case file is an information entry and retrieval system that will allow the FBI's counter-terrorism division to compile information quickly and easily from a number of open and classified sources in an attempt to track everything from an individual, suspected terrorist's movements to relationships among thousands of names kept on file.
The system instantaneously pulls information from various databases and sources, including: Unclassified sources; message and cable traffic between suspects and monitored individuals; terrorist watch lists, intelligence data; State Department visa data; data from state and local law enforcement organizations; data from all 66 Joint Terrorism Task Forces nationwide; date from court subpoenas and data obtained from other federal agencies.
Data from 23 million documents will also be included, including 6 million found by investigators and military personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"One criticism of the FBI," one official said during one of the demonstrations, "was that the FBI couldn't 'connect the dots.' Now we can connect the dots."
The new system didn't come without a struggle. When the Justice Department's inspector general earlier this year said the overhaul was resulting in cost overruns and suffered "major weaknesses," the Senate decided to give the agency $324 million below the president's requested for this year's FBI budget, according to congressional estimates.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate subcommittee that sets FBI spending levels, called the Trilogy project "a large disaster," adding that lawmakers had thrown so much money at it that it had become "gold-plated" and unworkable.
The Senate must still negotiate the FBI's budget, along with several other spending measures, with the House in the coming weeks, and the funds could be restored.
The data compiled by this new electronic system represents the bulk of the FBI's contribution to the TTIC. The system is scheduled to come online in pieces throughout this year, with the final deployment for use by field agents set for December. Thus far, several officials said Thursday, the entire system is on schedule.
U.S. intelligence agencies will work hand-in-hand "to bring together and maximize the existing and potential strengths of the contributing agencies, and to strengthen cooperation and foster closer working relationships," Mueller said.
"All of this is toward the common goal of protecting the American people. The center will be an important part of a transformed FBI and will better position us to prevent another terrorist attack."
Fox News' Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.