Bush shifts CIA, FBI anti-terror operations

Putting units in 1 building raises worries of more spying on Americans

February 15, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On a day when the administration sought to ease public anxiety about a possible terrorist attack, President Bush announced a sweeping plan to place all FBI and CIA counter-terrorism units under one roof.

Bush said the plan is intended to create a unified operation to monitor terrorists and to help the two agencies collaborate more closely.

In coming months, the FBI's Counterterrorism Division and the CIA's Counterterrorist Center will be moved out of their agencies' headquarters and housed together at a site somewhere in the Washington area, officials said.

The president had announced in his State of the Union speech last month his plan for a terrorism threat center, run by the CIA, that would analyze intelligence from several agencies. But the plan he unveiled yesterday is more far-reaching than he had indicated.

Bush intends to join together in one building not just several hundred terrorism analysts for the new threat center but also the entire counter-terrorism units of both the CIA and FBI - all told, more than 2,000 agents and staff.

The FBI's and CIA's counter-terrorism divisions will still answer to their individual agencies. But they will work closely with the threat center, which reports directly to George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence.

The move has raised concerns that the joining of the two agencies under one roof could trample on some civil liberties as well as diminish the influence of the FBI.

While Bush stressed tighter coordination between FBI and CIA, Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, held a news conference to reassure a public that has been on edge since the administration raised the terrorist threat level last week.

At the time, some officials suggested that Americans gather emergency supplies in case of an attack.

With reports of many people buying up duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect themselves, Ridge stressed that such supplies should be stored for emergencies, not used right now.

"God forbid, there may come a time when the local authorities or national authorities or someone will tell you that you've got to use them," he said.

"But for the time being, we just don't want folks sealing up their doors, or sealing up their windows," with duct tape.

Federal authorities, Ridge said, are evaluating intelligence reports daily and have seen nothing to suggest the need to either raise or lower the threat alert from "high."

Source not credible

Senior government officials acknowledged yesterday that some of the information that had led to raising the terrorist alert level was based on a source - a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - who no longer appears credible.

But they said the decision to raise the threat level was based on multiple reports and other sources that indicated an attack could be imminent.

The president's announcement about joining FBI and CIA counter-terrorist agents under one roof has caused some unease.

The FBI's Counterterrorism Division, which includes 1,200 agents and other personnel from headquarters, has become the heart of the bureau's efforts to transform itself over 17 months into an agency focused primarily on preventing terrorist attacks.

Though some FBI officials said they supported the shifting of those agents into a building with their CIA counterparts, others said the move carries at least some risk. They fear that the bureau could wind up ceding power to the CIA, and they acknowledged that boundaries that now bar the CIA from spying on Americans could weaken.

"We're not talking about the [CIA] collecting intelligence" on Americans, a senior FBI official said. "But it is something that the bureau has to watch, yes. There will have to be some oversight to make sure we're not operating outside the proper authority."

Administration officials stressed that the change, which is considered an administrative move and does not need congressional approval, will strengthen the government's intelligence gathering and analysis and connect any dots that could point to a future terrorist attack.

Signals missed

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, both the FBI and CIA were criticized for missing signals that might have alerted them to the attacks.

Speaking at FBI headquarters yesterday, Bush said: "The goal is to develop a comprehensive picture of terrorist activity. ... The American people need to know that we're collecting a lot of information and we're going to share it in a way that enables us to do our jobs that you expect us to do."

Bush's decision to join in one building the threat center, along with the FBI's and CIA's counter-terrorism units, alarmed some civil libertarians, who questioned whether the move would open the door to government eavesdropping on Americans.

The CIA, which is allowed to investigate only people and plots based abroad, is forbidden by law to spy on Americans or to become involved in law enforcement cases within the United States.

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