Create new agency for domestic intelligence

Special to the News & ObserverMay 2, 2004 

President Bush last month finally admitted that after years of half measures, he is ready to consider proposals to "revamp and reform our intelligence services." It's about time. When it comes to protecting America from terrorists here at home, it is clear that the agency responsible for the intelligence we rely upon -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- simply is not up to the job.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees, I've spent years studying the FBI -- its leadership, its culture, its structure, the training of its agents, its technological capabilities. The FBI is an excellent law enforcement agency -- probably the world's best -- and it is staffed with good people, including Director Robert Mueller.

That does not change the fact that the FBI has failed as an intelligence agency. As an institution, it does not possess any of the qualities that make for a successful intelligence agency. Indeed, the very qualities that make it successful in law enforcement work -- a linear process motivated by the goal of arresting, prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating lawbreakers -- are the qualities that make it unsuccessful in intelligence.

The administration says that it is working to correct the deficiencies, and Congress has received numerous briefings outlining Mueller's own efforts. Yet I have heard nothing that gives me confidence that the proposed changes will enable the FBI to more effectively collect intelligence on the plans and intentions of terrorists.

Don't just take it from me: As a recent report written by the bipartisan 9/11 commission explained, there is "a gap between announced reforms at FBI headquarters and the reality in the field." And the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted last month in a report that "the culture of the FBI, including its law enforcement-oriented approach to intelligence, may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle" to reform.

Instead of trying to turn the FBI into something it isn't, it is time to take the responsibility for domestic intelligence away from the FBI and to create a new Homeland Intelligence Agency dedicated to collecting foreign intelligence inside the United States. I proposed this idea in Congress last year. Great Britain and Canada and many Western democracies already have similar agencies.

Of course, any discussion of a Homeland Intelligence Agency raises serious and legitimate questions about the effect this could have on our civil liberties. I share these concerns. That is why we must create an intelligence agency that does a better job of tracking terrorists and a better job of protecting our basic freedoms.

Today, we have the worst of all worlds: an FBI that does a poor job of securing vital intelligence inside the United States, led by an attorney general who is doing an even worse job of protecting our civil liberties. We can and must do better on both fronts. A Homeland Intelligence Agency would require no new investigative authorities and would be tightly focused on gathering the intelligence we need to stop terrorist attacks. But it would also be carefully checked by new measures to prevent abuses of our civil liberties.

This new agency must be designed with clear safeguards to protect civil liberties -- including, for example, thorough internal recordkeeping, judicial review, public reporting and better congressional oversight. Also, it should have a high-level watchdog office to ensure that our freedoms are protected. Such measures would provide even greater protection of civil liberties than we have today under the FBI.

We cannot afford to close our eyes and our ears any longer to gathering intelligence about terrorists operating within our own borders. At the same time, we must do better at protecting civil liberties. Done the right way, a Homeland Intelligence Agency will do both, making Americans safer and freer.

(U.S. Sen. John Edwards is a Democrat from Raleigh.)

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