Officials weigh creating domestic intelligence agency

Analysts conclude that the option is just one of many that could be implemented to improve counterterrorism activities.

There is no easy answer as to whether the United States would be well-served by a domestic intelligence agency, a nonprofit research institution concluded in a new report.

"If America's counterterrorism-focused domestic intelligence, broadly conceived, is found wanting -- and how to do better while preserving civil liberties is the policy challenge -- changing organizations is one approach," said Gregory Treverton, director of the RAND Corp.'s Center for Global Risk and Security and author of the report, during a Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday. But there are other ways of improving counterterrorism activities that should be considered, including revising laws, spending more money to enhance existing capabilities, and improving leadership or the means for sharing information, he said.

RAND studied the issue at the request of the Homeland Security Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Two years ago, Congress directed that office to conduct "an independent study on the feasibility of creating a counterterrorism intelligence agency." The request stemmed from the failure of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials to anticipate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The research institute was not asked to make recommendations or to evaluate the performance of any existing agencies or programs. Instead, RAND was asked to consider whether a new organization could improve current domestic intelligence operations. The concerns it was to examine centered around the perceptions that the FBI is dominated by a law enforcement and case-based approach to terrorism; the FBI and the CIA do not talk to each other; too much poor-quality information is collected, and collection efforts are uncoordinated; analysis is fragmented; and it's difficult to move information across the domestic intelligence enterprise.

One challenge RAND faced is that the FBI is undergoing its own transformation in the wake of Sept. 11. Its budget doubled from $3.1 billion in 2001 to $6.4 billion in 2008 and the agency created a National Security Branch to focus on prevention and intelligence in the counterterrorism mission. An evaluation of the effectiveness of those changes would be useful before considering a new approach, Treverton said.

The United States doesn't have a domestic intelligence agency devoted to counterterrorism, but there are a number of programs within agencies aimed at detecting and preventing domestic terrorist attacks. The FBI has both domestic intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities and the CIA, Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center all have roles, as do state and municipal organizations.

Treverton noted that domestic intelligence and law enforcement both involve the investigation of tips and other information about suspicious behavior, but while law enforcement is focused on specific cases, domestic intelligence also includes exploratory activities that serve a broader warning function by building a strategic understanding of the domestic threat environment. It's an area ripe for clashes with civil liberties and one that makes many Americans uncomfortable.

"What is it that we want from domestic intelligence for counterterrorism?" Treverton asks. "Do we want every tip pursued?" That's probably not realistic, and it's not clear that a new agency or even a new organization within an existing agency would address lawmakers' concerns about the current means for gathering domestic intelligence, he said.

Government reorganizations often fail because they reflect the competing interests and political goals of their creators, and there is little consensus about how a domestic intelligence agency should operate. "Clarity of mission is key," whether that mission resides in an existing organization or a new one, Treverton said.

Creating a new domestic intelligence agency could mean several different things. RAND's analysis focused on the two most obvious alternatives to the status quo. The first is to combine functions of existing agencies into a separate agency with a relationship to the Justice Department, similar to the one the FBI has now. The second is to create an agency within an existing agency, most likely within the FBI or perhaps within Homeland Security.

An agency within an agency may be less disruptive and less costly than creating a separate organization, but a separate agency may offer the kind of mission clarity that's needed to give rise to an effective culture of intelligence-driven prevention, Treverton said. A separate service also may be able to pull from a broader, more diverse recruitment pool. Officials in domestic intelligence services in other democracies told RAND analysts they felt they were able to attract talent not normally drawn to a law enforcement culture.

RAND sought to establish the framework for a break-even analysis that would examine how much a new agency would have to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks to justify costs, both tangible and intangible, such as the impingement on civil liberties. For example, if it costs $500 million to create a domestic intelligence agency, to break even, the new service would have to reduce the nation's risk of terrorism by 50 percent if the annual risk were assumed be $1 billion. If the terrorism risk were assumed to be $10 billion, then the new agency would have to reduce that risk only by 5 percent to break even.

"What this analysis shows is that the choice turns on what level of terrorism risk is assessed or assumed, topics on which experts and policy makers differ considerably," Treverton said.