WASHINGTON – An advisory panel tasked with making recommendations for anti-terrorism efforts in the United States wants the government to create a new domestic spy agency that would engage in both foreign and domestic surveillance.
The new agency would also act as a clearinghouse of information coming in from the existing intelligence community — including the CIA and the FBI.
Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, chairman of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, also known as the Gilmore Commission, testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Procurement on Thursday.
He said that despite fierce debate among panel members, and his own reservations about the impact of such an agency on civil liberties, "the commission doesn't see any other alternative," in the face of mounting terrorism threats and ongoing information-sharing obstacles between the intelligence agencies, local and state law enforcement and other federal agencies, like the military.
"We have raged over this in our commission for the last six months," he said. In a final vote over the recommendation, panel member Jim Greenleaf, a former administrator for the FBI, was the lone dissenter, saying that such an agency would step on the toes of the other intelligence agencies and would not necessarily be equipped to protect civil liberties.
The recommendation calls for the establishment of a national counterterrorism center, which would act as a "stand alone" independent agency of the Federal Executive Branch, but a full member of the intelligence community.
It would be responsible for the "fusion" of intelligence coming in from all sources, foreign and domestic, on potential terrorist attacks inside the United States. It would then disseminate that information to all appropriate "customers," including the intelligence community, Department of Defense, local and state entities and even the private sector.
Aside from that function, the new agency would engage in domestic and foreign surveillance related to terrorism threats. The agency would "operate under significant judicial policy and administrative constraints" and would not seek any expansion of authority under current federal surveillance laws, according to the report. Oversight would be conducted under the auspices of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., chairman of the Military Procurement Subcommittee, said the establishment of a new agency was necessary to corralling all of the intelligence information floating in and out of the existing departments and was integral to protecting the country from another terrorist attack.
"It doesn't mean we have to create big brother," he said Thursday. "It does not violate the rights and freedoms of the American people."
But Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., a former CIA agent, said he was concerned that a new agency would merely create a new level of bureaucracy before working out all of the cultural, philosophical and jurisdictional impediments that exist between the intelligence agencies already.
"You're just creating another bureaucracy with the same restrictions," he said to Gilmore in the hearing. "It looks nice but would it address the current threat? What I'm suggesting is the focus and the debate should be on the current structures and whether they are adequate to address the current threat."
Sources say that the panel has discussed the comparison of a new agency with the model of the British MI5 security services, which works with the military, law enforcement and both foreign and domestic intelligence in the interest of protecting the country from terrorist threats and serious crime.
When asked how the other intelligence agencies feel about a potential new member in their community, and whether jurisdictional problems might arise among them, Gilmore said, "I think there is a legitimate concern being expressed by them."
Meanwhile, it looks like the military might be already engaging in some "fusion" activities of its own.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon is already constructing a computer system that would provide intelligence analysts and law enforcement with direct access to both foreign and domestic personal data — from Internet e-mail to credit card transactions — without a search warrant.
The Times reported that Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, head of the Office of Information Awareness at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon, has described the system in Pentagon documents and in recent speeches. Such a system would require changes in congressional legislation and an amendment to the 1974 Privacy Act.
Gilmore's commission consists of 22 members from various professional stations — from fire and police chiefs to State Department and FBI officials. It has released three annual reports to Congress since its inception in 1999. The former governor said 64 of the 74 policy recommendations have been implemented "in whole or in part" by Congress as a result.
"The panel has had a major impact," on national security and homeland security policy, Gilmore said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the panel's mission to help establish terrorism response efforts at the local, state and federal levels has become a more urgent task, Gilmore said.
Aside from intelligence gathering and procurement issues, the upcoming annual report due Dec. 15 is expected to include recommendations on further use of the military, health preparations in the event of a bio-terrorist attack, agricultural terrorism and critical infrastructure protection.