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Reformers Turn Up the Heat on the FBI

Lawmakers on a key budget committee order the bureau to get moving on an overhaul plan proposed by a presidential panel.

June 08, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Pressure to overhaul the FBI mounted Tuesday when House budget negotiators ordered the bureau to embrace the recommendations of a presidential commission on intelligence failures that would likely erode the FBI's independence.

The powerful House Appropriations Committee acted a day after a former member of another commission, the bipartisan panel that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, expressed concern that the FBI had failed to make sufficient progress in recasting itself since the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

Tuesday's action by the normally supportive congressional committee, in language attached to an FBI budget bill, sends a blunt message to the bureau that lawmakers consider the progress to be unacceptable.

It sets up a battle as early as next week, when the House is expected to take up the Justice Department budget.

The presidential commission on intelligence failures had recommended a restructuring of the FBI under which thousands of counterterrorism and counterintelligence agents and analysts would be accountable to an outside agency under the intelligence reform law Congress approved last year.

Without the change, critics say, only a fraction of the bureau's intelligence-related resources would be affected by the law.

An FBI spokesman declined comment on Tuesday's action.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a Senate committee last month that the bureau was reviewing the commission's recommendations, saying the proposals made "a significant contribution to understanding ways we can improve our intelligence capabilities."

But Mueller and other officials have also strongly defended the steps they have taken to remake the bureau after the Sept. 11 attacks, and were believed to be seeking more time to allow the moves to work before launching a more radical restructuring.

The Justice Department also declined comment.

But a former Justice Department official who has been tracking the proposals called the panel's action "a shot across the bow" by the lawmakers who control the purse strings.

"You never [mess] with your budget guys -- even if they tell you to run naked down Pennsylvania Avenue," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Even so, "I think the bureau will lobby like mad to get that knocked out."

The Justice Department is conducting a review of the proposals from the commission, co-chaired by federal judge Laurence H. Silberman and former U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, and recently submitted recommendations to the White House.

The Bush administration is preparing final recommendations on how it would like to see the panel's report carried out.

The panel, formally known as the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, produced a critique of America's spy services.

It detailed the intelligence debacle before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and concluded that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies remained poorly coordinated and hidebound to change.

Justice Department officials are believed to have recommended that at least one of the commission's proposals be adopted: creating a national security division within the department that would serve as a focal point for its terrorism-fighting efforts. But officials are believed to have recommended a less aggressive approach for the FBI.

Justice Department officials have declined comment on the specifics of their recommendations, which were described to The Times by people familiar with the process and who requested anonymity.

The congressional directive to the department, contained in a budget report made public Tuesday and prepared by a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI, does not carry the force of law. But the House Appropriations Committee, which provides the money for the government to operate, holds enormous sway over the agencies it funds.

In a report in March, the commission concluded that the bureau's intelligence-related divisions were scattered. It recommended that the terrorism and counterintelligence division be combined with the bureau's nascent intelligence arm in a new national security division.

Atop the division would sit a new senior-level official who would be accountable to an outsider, the new national intelligence director, John D. Negroponte.

Under the existing structure, the commission argued, the FBI's top intelligence official had too little authority over the hiring and firing of the analysts and agents who collected threat information throughout the agency.

Making that official reportable to Negroponte would give the intelligence czar the control he needed to carry out U.S. policy, the commission said.

The recommendations of the Silberman-Robb commission were in sharp contrast to the findings last summer by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, which generally endorsed the actions taken by the bureau since the attacks.

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