Centre for Research on Globalisation
In a televised address to the nation Thursday evening, President Bush proposed the creation of a cabinet-level domestic security office to act as a clearinghouse for intelligence collected by many existing federal agencies.
Like several other law enforcement changes proposed by the Bush administration during the past two weeks, this move was sharply criticized by civil libertarians, one of whom cautioned that Bush was leading the country toward a "police state."
The new agency, which requires congressional approval, would have the thorny job of protecting "the homeland," an effort that the FBI and CIA have lately been criticized for botching. Although details on the new agency's specific mandate were fuzzy, it was clear that the administration expected its modus operandi to be centered around easy interagency information sharing.
The "new entity will be one place where information will get pulled together," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary.
One of the main criticisms of the FBI and CIA is that they did not share intelligence leads they'd collected before Sept. 11, preventing each agency from seeing a full picture of terrorist activity and potentially disrupting the attackers' plans.
The FBI and the CIA would not be replaced by the new agency, but some of their operations could be given over to it. The agency would envelop 22 other federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Border Patrol, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Program, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Secret Service.
The White House called it the biggest government restructuring plan since the creation of the CIA in 1947.
Civil liberty and privacy watchdog groups were grim upon hearing the news, which was only the latest bit of government security tightening to occur in the last couple weeks.
Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft scrapped the guidelines that govern the FBI's conduct, allowing the bureau to monitor websites, public gatherings and religious institutions that aren't under criminal investigation.
On Wednesday, Ashcroft said the government would photograph and fingerprint up to 100,000 foreigners entering the country from Arab and Muslim countries.
"I think we've reached the point in the debate where we need to ask larger questions about where this administration is taking the U.S. government," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He added that "someone needs to apply the brakes" or the United States will become a "police state."
Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said that not only were these moves potentially censorial, but they would ironically make it more difficult to protect the homeland.
"When the government collects monumental amounts of information, it may not be able to find anything it needs," Berman said. "The problem they had (before Sept. 11) wasn't in finding information, it was in analyzing information, and if they have more information they'll have more analytic problems."
Berman allowed that the new agency could improve analysis, but he said it wasn't obvious that it would. "The public is saying 'please do what is necessary' -- and the government is saying 'take off the shackles.' But I really believe that in 90 percent of the cases, they're saying 'let's blame the law rather than the fact that we had a massive intelligence failure.' What the public needs is a better FBI," not fundamental changes in government, Berman said.
Several experts have noted that intelligence centrality of the sort proposed by Bush was the main goal of the creation of the CIA -- an agency now best known for not letting the FBI know before Sept. 11 that two members of al Qaida had entered the United States. Those men, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Stratfor.com, a Web-based "intelligence provider," said in an analysis prepared last month that "a centralized intelligence capability is essential if the United States is to have a single, integrated, coherent picture of what is happening in the world. A bureaucratically fragmented intelligence community will generate a fragmented picture of the world. That is currently what we have."
Stratfor.com added that cultural and institutional differences within the CIA and between the CIA and the FBI caused the fragmentation that is apparent today.
Others echoed this theme.
Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said in a statement that the creation of the new department "is a positive, timely, though incomplete, step that will generate as much rancor as it does cooperation and results.
"Centralizing security and preparedness efforts is essential for coping with the terrorism threat. However, despite new funding and presidential backing, there are bound to be budgetary and turf battles with other bureaucracies that will slow the new department's efforts. The American people should be encouraged by this development, but should not expect this to be the panacea that many are seeking."
It's unclear what kind of reception the new agency will receive in Congress, but several members were very supportive of the move, with Richard Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House, telling Reuters the move is "precisely what I think should be done."
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