Time to Spy in America

Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information
The need for information extends beyond following individuals. It requires gathering foreign intelligence domestically.

I

t is time to contemplate creating a separate domestic intelligence agency with independent oversight.

The arguments for a separate domestic intelligence agency are three-capacity, need and accountability. In terms of capacity, the FBI is likely to remain-and perhaps should remain-primarily a law enforcement organization.

The need for information extends beyond simply following individuals. It also requires gathering foreign intelligence domestically-finding out what is being said on the streets and in the mosques of cities at home as well as around the world. The Sept. 11 terrorists not only trained in Afghanistan and used European cities as staging areas, but they also mixed in easily in the United States.

The need for domestic intelligence means that the last generation's solution to the vexing issue of accountability cannot be today's. In the mid-1970s, the nation's first-ever domestic intelligence investigations were fraught with abuses of the rights of Americans, especially in a perilous mixing of domestic intelligence and law enforcement at the FBI during J. Edgar Hoover's long tenure as director. The justification for and ostensible focus of these counterintelligence programs, COINTELPRO in bureau parlance, was hostile foreign intelligence services. But most of COINTELPRO's targets were American citizens in civil rights and anti-war groups.

As a result of such investigations, the FBI's domestic intelligence activities were sharply restrained, and the wall separating intelligence from law enforcement was built higher. Now, the nation can no longer afford to refrain from domestic intelligence, nor to suffer the ragged cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement that was the backdrop to Sept. 11. The new Terrorist Threat Integration Center can be a useful step in improving cooperation between the two. But it is meant to better connect the dots in understanding the terrorist threat, not to be a domestic intelligence service.

The lesson of COINTELPRO is that dangers to democracy can arise from mixing domestic intelligence with law enforcement in a single agency. A separate agency with independent oversight is vital to better intelligence work and a safer democracy.

The new Homeland Security Department would be the logical place for such an agency, though the attorney general should have some oversight responsibility, as he does for other intelligence agencies. The congressional intelligence committees should oversee the entire agency, in contrast to the current approach, in which oversight of the FBI is split. The intelligence committees oversee only the intelligence operations at the FBI, and the rest of the bureau reports to other committees.

A single point of oversight would reduce the chance of another COINTELPRO fiasco by clarifying who is in charge. It would diminish the risk involved when operations require mixing intelligence and enforcement in ways that aren't fully disclosed to committees with separate mandates, and with different access to secret information.

Since we have yet to fully calibrate the terrorist threat, it would be wise to take some time to reflect on the risks and value of creating a homeland security intelligence service. The general sense is that terrorism against the United States will be serious but not on par with the threat faced by Israel. Thus, the nation will not be forced to shift the balance between liberty and security as far toward security as Israel has had to do.


Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at RAND and associate dean of the RAND Graduate School. He was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, and wrote(Cambridge University Press, 2001).


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