Just another FBI screw-up?

Homeland Security officials say that several hundred FBI agents could find no U.S. connections with the latest alleged British terrorists. Well, given our counterintelligence record, pardon me if I don’t take much comfort from that pronouncement. Neither should you.

There is every indication that the FBI couldn’t catch a cold no matter how many agents it threw into the task. If that seems a bit harsh, the evidence is substantial that the bureau’s primary mission is still basic law enforcement despite five years of promising to reform and refocus. Agents _ there are now about 13,000 of them _ are still more interested in catching common criminals than fanatics who threaten the security of the country.

Britain’s success in unraveling and heading off this latest major terrorist plot is the best reason yet for establishing a domestic intelligence apparatus akin to the United Kingdom’s MI5, which adroitly parlayed a tip into infiltration and then disruption of a cell of crazies planning to murder hundreds of U.S.-bound air travelers. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, the Brits showed patience and sophistication in achieving the broadest possible dismantling of the terrorists’ plans. (As a historical note, the most successful U.S. intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services of World War II, was patterned off the British model.)

In sharp contrast, U.S. authorities have made hurried and highly publicized arrests on several recent occasions only to be embarrassed when the cases collapsed because there was insufficient evidence to hold the suspects. Officials here apparently even pressured the British to make their arrests before they were ready.

There also seems to be little doubt that in several instances local law-enforcement officials targeted suspects merely on the basis of ethnic and religious heritage. But even when the motivation seemed well-grounded, as it did in the arrest of Jose Padilla, a one-time American gang member turned alleged terrorist, experts believe it would have been beneficial to let the plot mature before disrupting it. Even though Padilla was a suspected terrorist, the government ultimately was forced to bring unrelated charges.

In fairness, the British have in place laws that enhance their counterterrorism efforts. Chief among these is their ability to hold suspects for 28 days without charging them. U.S. courts demand release within 48 hours of arrest if a suspect has not been formally charged and arraigned. The Justice Department currently is assessing the benefit and constitutionality of laws that would bring U.S. statutes more in line with those of Great Britain. Considering the difficulty the White House had in winning extension of the Patriot Act, there seems little likelihood Congress would buy into any such plan soon.

The same is true for any attempt at meaningful reorganization of the FBI, including breaking off its counterintelligence responsibilities or leaving it with only that mission. After all, the bureau’s anticrime activities duplicate those of at least a half-dozen other federal agencies. But the FBI’s lobby in Congress _ despite one black eye after another dealt the bureau by multiple 9/11 investigations _ remains so strong that major overhaul is practically impossible. Just the opposite has occurred. Every new embarrassment is met with increased funding and more agents. Some 4,000 agents have been added since Sept. 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, the FBI lacks the kind of language capability the British possess to infiltrate radical Islamic cells; the ability to bring its computer system to the level of proficiency of al Qaeda’s; policies aimed at doing more than just covering the rear ends of its officials, concentration on what is most important to the nation and, most importantly, little real oversight from Congress or the agency’s supposed superior, the Justice Department.

Actually, it is the FBI that dominates the Justice Department, operating mainly independently and calling the shots on what and who will be investigated. No attorney general since the modern bureau was founded in 1924 has been able to force it into anything. That includes the last two since 9/11, when the evidence was overwhelming that the FBI had been almost criminally derelict in its duty, failing even to follow up on the warnings of its field agents.

So anyone who finds much reassurance in the bureau’s inability to find any connection here with those who would have blown up airliners traveling from Britain had better pay more attention to recent history. Be forewarned, however, if you want to write a letter to Congress; it won’t do any good.

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