The heightened threat of domestic terrorism has sparked a new debate about whether the United States needs a new domestic intelligence agency.
The failure of U.S. intelligence to detect the impending attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 is cited as the key reason for the post World War II creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, another intelligence failure, 60 years later, has ignited a new debate over the possible creation of a new domestic intelligence arm.
Former congressman Lee Hamilton is vice chairman of the independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
"In December we will examine reforms by the FBI and whether we need a new agency to gather intelligence in the United States, what some have called an American version of Britain's MI5," he said.
MI5 is purely a domestic British intelligence agency. Most countries around the world have, to varying degrees, a similar kind of domestic intelligence agency, be it an interior ministry or security service. But the United States is different. Here the primary responsibility for domestic intelligence currently rests with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. The CIA is forbidden by law to operate in the United States.
Arthur Hulnick, a political science professor at Boston University and a 28-year veteran of the CIA, says domestic intelligence agencies are usually separate from the police.
"In most countries where they have an MI5, a domestic security service, they are not police," he said. "They are intelligence people whose job is to gather information and analyze it and, then, if they see a problem, turn to the police for help."
Mr. Hulnick says the FBI is trying to remake itself to respond to the terrorist threat.
"What the FBI is trying to do is go from being a police organization to being able to do intelligence gathering and analysis in the same way," he said.
But the FBI is first and foremost a law enforcement agency. John MacGaffin, former associate deputy director of operations of the CIA, says the FBI as it is currently constituted is ill-equipped to handle domestic intelligence duties.
"The FBI, perhaps in the past with regard to the Communist Party of the United States and other domestic problems, was involved in intelligence gathering," he said. "But I do not believe that in any effective way, efficient way, satisfactory way, that the FBI is in the intelligence gathering business now. That is indeed the problem."
Mr. MacGaffin who, after his long career as a top CIA spymaster, was a consultant to the FBI, says there are what might be called "cultural differences" between intelligence agencies and police organizations. Intelligence agents try to discover information in order to stop a potential act or plot. The FBI, Mr. MacGaffin says, looks to catch people who have committed crimes, such as kidnapping, auto theft, and bank robbery.
"The FBI's glorious work was related to reactive things, get the baby back, get the car back, get the bank back. The crime had been done," he said. "That reactive approach is no good in today's world. We don't want someone to catch the people who let Sarin gas loose in the New York subway. We have to have a proactive approach, and that is domestic intelligence."
Few analysts expect a duplication of MI5, which enjoys vast powers in Britain, in the United States. But they add that sentiment for some kind of new agency in the United States can be expected to grow,if the FBI is not able to come to grips with the ever-greater demands for domestic intelligence.