WASHINGTON – As the nation's capital remains on guard in the face of a heightened terror alert, President Bush told law enforcement officials Friday that the newest counterterrorism intelligence agency will help the United States better fight the war on terror.
The Terrorist Threat Integration Center, first described by President Bush in his State of the Union address, will begin work on May 1, 2003, and is aimed at improving the flow among agencies of intelligence collected both inside and outside the United States.
"All our successes in the war on terror depend on the ability of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies to work in common purpose," Bush said in a speech at FBI headquarters. "In order to better protect our homeland, our intelligence agencies must coexist like they never had before. In order to hunt the terrorists down one by one, our intelligence agencies must cooperate fully with agencies overseas.
TTIC will employ about 60 government agents at first, Bush told federal, state, and local officials. It will work initially out of the CIA, but will soon be moved to a new facility, along with the FBI's Counterterrorism Division and the Director of Central Intelligence's Counterterrorist Center, to improve collaboration and enhance the government's ability to thwart terrorist attacks. When complete, about 250-300 government employees will analyze terror threat data at the facility.
TTIC will be the overall analytical center for information coming from the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, Defense and State Departments. The head of TTIC, as yet unnamed, will report directly to CIA Director George Tenet.
The president's announcement comes as lawmakers and businesses in Washington cautiously went about their activities despite fears of an attack.
While residents bought out the water and duct tape in local stores, members of Congress were also gathering up supplies, sensitive documents and key phone numbers in the event of evacuation. Lawmakers have also been told to have their medicine and gas masks handy.
Nonetheless, Congress is putting on a brave face in the wake of last week's increased threat level hike from yellow to orange, or high.
"Everyone in [the Capitol] has remained calm but cautious," said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee. "There is not a panic situation here."
While Justice Department officials said Thursday that there were no plans to raise the threat level to red, or imminent, lawmakers are also trying to quash concerns raised by rumors that the Capitol would be the site of an attack this weekend.
Though urging everyone to be extra cautious and on the lookout, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday that they knew of no specific threat aimed at the Capitol and have had no warnings coming to them from intelligence agencies.
TTIC, whose employees will have to answer to congressional oversight despite its creation by statutory authority, will not conduct its own intelligence but will determine threats and provide assessments to national leaders. It will also maintain a database of known and suspected terrorists.
The units moving from the CIA and FBI will continue to report up their respective chains of commands, but their coordination is meant to speed up the input and sharing of information, reduce redundant activities and provide an analysis of the need to update strategies for collecting information.
"The increased cooperation of the CIA and FBI counterterrorism operations is proving to be one of the greatest advantages in this war on terror," Bush said.
The Department of Homeland Security will also have a role in TTIC. It will receive and analyze terrorism-related information; map threats against vulnerabilities; facilitate action to protect against threats and disseminate threat information to the public, private industry and state and local governments.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Friday said that the latest threat information should not cause panic among jittery Americans.
People do not need "to start sealing the doors or windows," Ridge told reporters at the headquarters of the new Cabinet department.
There is no plan to either raise or lower the current government assessment of the terrorist threat, Ridge said, despite recent acknowledgement by government sources that one source used to determine the threat level failed a lie detector test.
TTIC is meant to enhance efforts at the FBI, which created a National Joint Terrorism Task Force, a 24-hour a day Counterterrorism Watch center and is said to have already foiled terrorist plots in the United States.
The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center has already issued bulletins to telecommunications, energy and banking and finance industries as well as operators of water systems and electric utilities, law enforcement agencies and emergency services.
The new structure has already raised concerns among civil liberties and privacy groups who say they don't like the idea of the CIA working so closely with the FBI, especially with the CIA chief overseeing any domestic intelligence operations, but the White House responded that the TTIC is merely a clearinghouse, not an intelligence gathering group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.