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Domestic Spy Agency New Call, Old Worries

Renewed calls for supposed fail-safe measures are not ironclad safeguards against abuses.
 
 
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National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's finger point at the FBI during her testimony before the 9/11 Commission for allegedly failing to follow up on its investigation of Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States U.S. prior to the September 11 terror attacks, increased the clamor for an independent domestic spy agency. And FBI Director Robert Mueller's impassioned plea against a separate agency won't quiet the clamor. The failure to coordinate, gather and properly analyze intelligence data between the intelligence agencies, local and state law enforcement and other federal agencies, and the military is the main reason Bush officials allegedly stumbled in the terrorist fight in the days before September 11.

The idea of a domestic intelligence agency is not new. Rice and the heads of the CIA, FBI, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft first floated the idea at a White House meeting in November 2002. The next month the Gilmore panel, an advisory panel charged with making recommendations for improved anti-terrorism efforts in the United States, called for the creation of a domestic intelligence agency. But panel members also recognized the potential threat of such an agency to civil liberties. As a safeguard, they recommended that the agency not have expanded wiretap and surveillance powers or law enforcement authority, and that the Senate and House intelligence committees have strict oversight over its activities.

These supposed fail-safe measures are not ironclad safeguards against abuses.

The history of domestic intelligence activities by federal agencies that have operated as super-secret spy forces is littered with troubling cases where these agencies and their operatives have wreaked havoc on individual rights and civil liberties.

The FBI is the prime example. Though it has taken heat for intelligence bumbling prior to 9/11, at the close of World War I it actually had an intelligence unit called the General Intelligence Division. It was used to crack down on radicals and political dissenters after anarchists exploded a bomb outside the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in 1919. The Palmer raids of 1919-20 rounded up many immigrants who later were found innocent of any crimes.

During the 1950s and 1960s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kicked FBI domestic spying into high gear. FBI agents compiled secret dossiers, illegally wiretapped, used undercover plants and agent provocateurs, sent poison pen letters and staged black bag jobs against black activists and anti-war groups.

In 2002, President Bush scrapped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. This gave the FBI carte blanche authority to survey and plant agents in churches, mosques and political groups, and ransack the Internet to hunt for potential subversives, without the need or requirement to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing. The revised Bush administration spy guidelines, along with the anti-terrorist provisions of the Patriot Act, also gave local agents even wider discretion to determine what groups or individuals they can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them. The FBI wasted little time in flexing its newfound intelligence muscle.

It mounted a secret campaign to monitor and harass Iraq war protestors in Washington D.C. and San Francisco in October 2003.

Then there's the checkered recent history of Britain's MI-5, which commission members, and other spy agency advocates, tout as the ideal model for a homegrown spy agency. MI-5 has been accused of colossal intelligence lapses in failing to warn of pending attacks in Bali, Kenya, and the Israeli embassy bombing in 1994, and in failing to spot the threat of Al-Qaeda operatives in Britain.

MI-5 also has played fast and loose with rights and civil liberties. Critics charged that it falsely branded dozens of Arabs as terrorists during the 1991 Gulf War, burglarized mosques, concocted phony claims of criminal wrongdoing against mine union leaders, monitored and harassed peace activists and civil liberties groups and targeted liberal and labor politicians with a disinformation campaign.

Though former Bush counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke advocated the creation of a separate domestic spy agency, he was also troubled by its potential for abuse. Clarke noted that it would be a hard sell to convince the public and some in Congress that the new agency will not operate as a secret police. A recent Congressional Research Service report also circled gingerly around the proposal for a separate spy agency. It made that one of only five options for improving intelligence gathering and coordination.

A new domestic intelligence agency supposedly would eliminate the danger of intelligence gaffes. But there's no proof that it would be free of bureaucratic bungles, or serve as a more effective early warning system against potential terrorist attacks. And given the abuses that have been an indelible trademark of past domestic spying efforts, there's certainly no guarantee that a new domestic spy agency would be immune from committing those same abuses.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.