The FBI is significantly expanding its intelligence-gathering activities in the U.S., including stepped-up efforts to collect and report intelligence on foreign figures and governments, a function that long has been principally the CIA’s domain, intelligence and congressional sources said Thursday.
The bureau in December launched discussions with top CIA officials to rewrite the two-decade-old ground rules covering how the agencies conduct their intelligence efforts in the U.S. and abroad. That effort reflects an acceleration of the FBI’s foreign-intelligence collection efforts in the U.S. in recent months, as well as the desire of top bureau officials to assert what they view as their legal duty to track CIA activities in the U.S. and coordinate with the agency’s operations.
The moves are causing concern among some current and former CIA officials, who see them as another sign of the diminished standing of the beleaguered agency, which also is confronted by recent Pentagon moves to increase its military intelligence collections abroad.
The CIA was singled out for harsh treatment by the independent panel that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, and is undergoing painful restructuring under new leadership. Some worry that new Director Porter J. Goss is not doing enough to fight off the bureau’s push.
“This is the kind of thing that the [director of central intelligence] ought to be standing up on his hind legs and making a fuss [about],” said a former senior CIA official. “This is a battle for survival.”
Other agency officials say those concerns are overblown. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
Officials familiar with the FBI’s thinking say they hope that a tentative draft of the procedures -- which are classified -- will be completed next month; they said the bureau also hoped to obtain new assurances that the CIA would share information about its U.S. activities with the FBI.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Goss have been actively involved in the discussions. The procedures would have to be approved by the attorney general and whomever is named as national intelligence director, the new post that will oversee all of the nation’s intelligence-gathering agencies.
Months ago, members of Congress were debating whether to strip the bureau of its ability to conduct intelligence functions, after widespread bungling and intelligence failures in the months before Sept. 11. Ultimately, Congress and the Sept. 11 commission concluded that it was in the interest of national security that the FBI’s nascent intelligence arm remain intact and be allowed to grow.
“The FBI has an obligation to step up to the plate and use its resources,” a former U.S. official sympathetic to the bureau said. “The FBI always had the mandate to collect information on foreign governments within the boundaries of the U.S. [But] there was never an enterprise-wide intelligence capability to ensure that.”
Now, the former official pointed out, the bureau is attempting to rapidly achieve such a capability, hiring hundreds of intelligence analysts and other specialists and setting up groups in field offices whose sole mission is to collect and report intelligence.
The evolving new regime is striking in part because the record of the FBI on intelligence gathering has been so spotty -- mostly confined to espionage, terrorism investigations and the pursuit of criminal convictions.
Even then, the bureau often relied on the CIA to disseminate its information throughout the intelligence community, or simply left the information buried in FBI files.
After Sept. 11, the FBI was harshly criticized for failing to act on information in its files before the attacks that might have established links to some of the 19 hijackers that piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Now the FBI is pushing more of what it knows into the intelligence community, and boosting collection and reporting efforts.
The interest in foreign intelligence resulted partly from what the bureau viewed as successes from a series of interviews about possible terrorist threats it conducted with Iraqi Americans in the U.S. before the war. Officials say they produced intelligence that ended up saving the lives of American soldiers in combat.
It also reflects an aggressive new vision promulgated by the bureau’s intelligence czar, Maureen Baginski, a Russian linguist and career intelligence analyst whom Mueller hired away from the National Security Agency two years ago.
The result, one former official said, has been an exponential growth in recent months in the number of intelligence reports the bureau has circulated -- including information on terrorist threats, espionage and foreign governments. Officials said the quality of the reports was mixed but improving.
Some congressional sources contend that the FBI move rests on ambiguous legal authority.
By an order President Bush issued in 2003, the bureau can legally collect foreign intelligence in the U.S., but only “when requested by officials of the intelligence community designated by the president.”
On the other hand, the same presidential order requires that foreign intelligence operations in the U.S. by the CIA “be coordinated with the FBI.”
Nonetheless, FBI officials believe that the bureau has always had the legal authority to collect such intelligence, but that it was never made a priority. That claim, officials believe, was further enhanced in the intelligence reform bill that Congress approved late last year, sources familiar with bureau thinking said.
Some current and former CIA officials also fear that the FBI is seeking to supplant CIA intelligence activities in the U.S.
And they question whether the bureau -- steeped in a culture of catching bank robbers rather than cultivating spooks -- is a reliable partner. The bureau has also had its own high-profile debacles in recent months, including a bungled $170-million computer upgrade that it acknowledges is crucial to its new intelligence mission.
Although the CIA is principally responsible for overseas intelligence collection, it has domestic stations in most major U.S. cities that current and former officials say are active in gathering information from travelers and recruiting Americans or visitors who have relatives or friends in a position to provide information on foreign targets.
For example, the Los Angeles Times detailed three years ago how the CIA was quietly but actively recruiting informants in Los Angeles, seeking to tap into Southern California’s large Iranian American population to gain a spying portal into Tehran.
Some current and former CIA officials said they believed that the bureau was angling to take control of such long-established CIA tasks as recruiting foreign travelers and U.S. businessmen who visited countries of interest to the intelligence community, and cultivating and managing U.S. business relations overseas. They also said that FBI officials wanted to take over production and distribution of intelligence reports based on information from such domestic sources -- in what they asserted was a statistics-padding move that could help the FBI compete for funding and resources, at the CIA’s expense.
“We’re in a numbers game,” said one intelligence official familiar with the proposals. “And the FBI is trying to establish themselves as somebody who can produce a lot of IIRs [intelligence information reports].”
But people close to the bureau say officials there have no interest in treading on the CIA’s turf, and that the FBI is interested in cooperation rather than competition. These people also say that whichever agency develops a source of information will remain responsible for communicating the information to the rest of government.
“There is more than enough work to go around,” said a person familiar with the FBI’s plans. “The nature of the threat requires joint operations. With the CIA and FBI operating together, more of the foreign intelligence requirements of the United States will be met. That’s the bottom line.”
But some people said that coordination, especially between agencies that had a long tradition of viewing each other with suspicion and even disdain, was easier to achieve in theory than in practice. Their failure to work together was sharply criticized by the Sept. 11 commission and other investigators.
Some current and former CIA officials said they were concerned that the larger role for the FBI would inevitably interfere with the agency’s well-established contacts abroad and create confusion. One official argued that it made sense for the same agency that is covering Sudan overseas, for example, to be talking to Sudanese in the U.S.
“Our system must provide uniformity in dealing with sources of foreign intelligence,” said a U.S. official.
The agency with the most expertise about the affairs of a particular foreign nation should be calling the shots, and that is more likely to be the CIA, another official said.
A third expressed concern that because the FBI, based on numbers of agents alone, dwarfs the CIA in the U.S., the bureau would tend to favor its own operators rather than those of the CIA in the event of conflicts.
The new rules have been in the works since December.