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U.S.: Terror Report Highlights Public Oversight On Intelligence

  • Andrew Tully

Americans are again closely scrutinizing their government's intelligence operations amid concerns that better handling of information may have prevented the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Washington, 17 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An advisory panel to the U.S. government is recommending the creation of an independent office to coordinate the intelligence about potential terrorist attacks gathered domestically and overseas.

The panel's chairman, James Gilmore, said he believes this new office -- which he called an "intelligence fusion organization" -- is necessary because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are still not sharing information as well as they should.

The FBI is responsible for gathering intelligence domestically. The CIA gathers foreign intelligence.

In releasing this and other recommendations yesterday in Washington, Gilmore said the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 highlighted the need for all American intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI and the CIA, to share information. Still, he said, there has been little progress. "Intelligence and information sharing has only marginally improved. Despite organizational reforms and better oversight, the ability to gather and disseminate information is still problematic, particularly up and down the line -- between federal, state, and local authorities."

Gilmore noted that the FBI, the CIA, and other U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly have been accused of guarding their information in ways that might put at risk the country they are supposed to be protecting.

In fact, only last week (11 December), a joint committee of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives issued a report that reached that same conclusion. That House-Senate report recommended, among other things, creating a new director of national intelligence as a cabinet member who would have control over CIA and Pentagon intelligence collection.

In addition to the proposals made by Gilmore's advisory panel and the congressional committee, an independent commission has also been created to investigate the 11 September attacks. The bipartisan, 10-member commission is being asked to determine what, if any, law enforcement and intelligence failures were to blame for the attacks.

This is not the first time that U.S. intelligence operations have come under public scrutiny. In the 1960s, for example, Congress investigated whether the FBI was overstepping its authority during investigations of organizations opposed to the war in Southeast Asia. And in the 1990s, the CIA was forbidden to hire agents suspected of human rights violations, regardless of their potential value to the agency.

Analysts say this public oversight of the government's secret services is central to Americans' self-government. One such analyst is Leo Ribuffo, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington. He told RFE/RL that public scrutiny of all aspects of government has always been an essential part of the country's political character. "Americans have always been unusually concerned about their privacy and protection of their rights, going back to the days of the [drafting of the] constitution, and that has to be balanced against a sense that incursions on rights will be necessary to protect national security. So there's always been a tension."

Bill Frenzel, a former representative in Congress (R-Minnesota) agreed, and said Americans are right to keep a close watch on their government's intelligence gathering. But he notes that during wars and similar crises, public oversight of spy agencies tends to weaken.

One example Frenzel cites is the Cold War, which he says appeared to pose as great a threat to the security of the United States as a conflict in which armies clash on battlefields. The former congressman said there was little public scrutiny of the government's foreign intelligence operations during much of the latter half of the 20th century. But he added that much of that information is now being made public, and properly so.

"During the Cold War, the United States felt particularly threatened by an enemy that was of supposedly equal strength. Some of the things we [U.S. intelligence] did were not revealed to the public, and probably that was a good thing. Ultimately, I believe that what intelligence agencies do needs to be revealed."

According to Frenzel, public scrutiny of intelligence operations was suspended during the Cold War because it was more like a real war than the current U.S. war on terrorism. He said he believes Americans felt the threat of the Soviet Union more "cataclysmically" than they now fear a terrorist attack from Al-Qaeda.

But Ribuffo sees it differently. He said he believes that Americans are more unsettled by the shadowy Al-Qaeda today than they were by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. "The threat from terrorism has just begun, and the Cold War went on and on and on for decades. On the other hand, it seems to me people talk -- at least if you live in certain cities -- a great deal more about a 'dirty bomb' [being] planted at the Capitol [building that houses both chambers of Congress] than anybody ever talked about fearing a nuclear attack in 1981."

Both Ribuffo and Frenzel agree that public examination of intelligence operations sometimes is influenced by transitory political trends, and so does not always yield beneficial results. Frenzel points to the decision in the last decade to keep suspected human-rights violators off the CIA payroll. "American intelligence should use the most effective ways it can find to gather intelligence. And if you have to pay people who are less than perfect, if you get the good value for what you pay, it seems to me that that is OK."

Ribuffo added that in some cases, only bad people can help catch other bad people. He says it is possible that the 2001 attacks on the United States and other acts of terror might have been prevented if intelligence agencies had been permitted to use people with known terrorist links as their informants.

But he adds that this and similar issues will never be resolved because advocates on both sides will never be able to prove their cases. He says the question will be debated for decades, just as people still debate whether the United States could have prevented the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought America into World War II.

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