[ OUR OPINION ]
Protect civil liberties
from intelligence overhaul
President Bush has said it might be time to reform the U.S. intelligence services to protect the country from terrorist attacks.
INADEQUACY of America's intelligence network was made obvious by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the East Coast. Its deplorable condition was confirmed when the information that formed the basis for the U.S. assault in Iraq was shown to be flawed. President Bush agrees that "now may be a time to revamp and reform our intelligence services." The administration should waste no time in implementing such an overhaul, heeding the upcoming recommendations of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
The growing consensus is that a cabinet-level position of national intelligence director be created and given budget control of all intelligence agencies. Domestic intelligence should be kept within the FBI because of considerations of privacy rights and constitutional liberties.
Osama bin Laden's vow to strike again at the United States should prod the government to adopt significant changes promptly without disrupting current intelligence work. CIA Director George Tenet said its global network of spies was in "disarray" when he arrived in 1997 and it would take five more years to revamp; that is too long.
The 9/11 commission has uncovered unacceptable blunders. U.S. intelligence agencies "did not describe" al-Qaida until 1999. That was 11 years after the terrorist group's formation at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and after numerous attacks on American targets beginning with the 1992 bombing of a Yemen hotel quartering U.S. troops.
Tenet's 1998 directive that intelligence agencies were "at war" against terrorism had "little overall effect" within the CIA, according to a commission staff report. When Tenet and his deputies were presented in August 2001 with a briefing paper labeled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly," about the arrest of al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota, they did not act on the information.
Commission member John F. Lehman, Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, called the staff report a "damning evaluation of a system that is broken, that doesn't function." The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey, called the staff reports an "indictment" against both the CIA and the FBI.
The CIA was created in 1947 to collect foreign intelligence outside the United States and is forbidden from performing any internal security functions. Internal intelligence is a function of the FBI. That should not keep the agencies from sharing information, but they have been at odds with each other since the days of J. Edgar Hoover.
Technically, Tenet has direct authority over only the CIA, although he oversees the rest of the intelligence agencies, including those in the Defense Department. A cabinet-level intelligence director would have greater responsibility.