Challenging the Status Quo

While it is not unusual for a president to name a blue-ribbon panel to study problems of national import, it is rare for him to act on its recommendations. Usually, commissions of this sort become producers of waste paper.

Not so President Bush’s nine-member group that evaluated intelligence needs in the wake of 9/11 and came up with tough suggestions, including reforms that have the potential of completely changing the face of the FBI as well as the way America gathers crucial information. A key to the success of the commission was the appointment of a bipartisan leadership of Laurence Silberman and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, son-in-law of Lyndon B. Johnson. Both members understand the need for overhauling the domestic side of counterintelligence about as well as anyone.

The result, of course, has been the president’s decision to create an entirely new intelligence unit within the fiercely independent FBI under the control of the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte. The move puts the bureau on the same footing as the CIA, whose director also must report to Negroponte, and for the first time since the inception of the CIA in 1947 brings domestic and overseas intelligence operations under one umbrella.

There is no doubt that without the president’s intercession, backed up by the Silberman-Robb recommendations, little or nothing was going to happen to fix the domestic-intelligence apparatus. Although he has tried to institute the wholesale reforms that every independent appraiser of 9/11 has cited as absolutely necessary to help prevent another major terrorist attack on American soil, FBI Director Robert Mueller has met stiff resistance from an entrenched FBI bureaucracy backed up by 80 years of law-enforcement culture. Adding new analysts and assigning hundreds of more agents to a new directorate of intelligence generally has not produced the needed alterations. Mueller’s job has been made more difficult by the fact he did not come from the ranks of the bureau.

How successful Negroponte will be in bringing the FBI into the 21st century in counterintelligence by changing its reactive nature to a proactive one in intelligence matters remains to be seen. Some critics believe the culture that sees no difference between garden-variety criminals and the ones intent on doing major harm to the country will be almost impossible to change. Ultimately, they believe the bureau must be relieved of the responsibility altogether and a new agency combining both branches of intelligence-gathering established, one that understands that terrorism needs to be stopped before it happens.

Already some FBI supporters on Capitol Hill have charged that the president’s decision may endanger our civil liberties. That was the same argument made at the time of the CIA’s creation and was the key reason the new intelligence agency was denied domestic responsibility. It is generally politically inspired poppycock. For years the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was accused of stepping on the rights of Americans in various programs, including the notorious Cointelpro during the Vietnam era and in the Communist witch-hunt days.

Trying to head off such arguments the other day, Negroponte’s chief deputy, Gen. Michael Hayden, told reporters that steps would be taken to ensure the changes did not impinge on American civil liberties. However, he said, the United States doesn’t have the luxury of maintaining divisions between domestic and foreign intelligence, adding that the nation’s enemies don’t recognize that distinction.

Some of those heralding the changes believe that success will take steady attention by the Oval Office, even with Negroponte’s new statutory authority. Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, reportedly cautioned recently that the sustained attention of the president was absolutely necessary if the changes were to succeed. She was quoted as saying that while the FBI will now have a fully dedicated intelligence service, it won’t get the job done if the “guns and badges” mind-set that doesn’t fit with counterintelligence isn’t put aside.

The lobby against such an erosion of FBI independence, however, is powerful. In addition to its supporters on Capitol Hill, the bureau’s retired agents are a strong voice in political circles. Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, an FBI veteran, recently criticized the suggestion in a letter to the local press that the bureau wasn’t equipped for both law enforcement and counterintelligence.

Whatever the outcome, this president has shown the willingness and courage to make the most important changes in the intelligence structure in more than a half-century.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)