WASHINGTON—A White House plan to create a massive new domestic intelligence division within the FBI raised concerns on Wednesday among civil liberties advocates who feared it could lead to a return to the bureau's dark days of spying on Americans.
The nation's new intelligence czar, John Negroponte, will have a say over the budget of the new FBI national security section and will help select an official to oversee it.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a news conference Wednesday that agents working in the new division would continue to report to FBI Director Robert Mueller and to respect "the privacy rights and civil liberties of all Americans."
But Timothy Edgar, national security policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said giving the nation's spy chief power over the FBI was worrisome.
While FBI agents are bound by the nation's Constitution, he said, spies operate abroad with fewer constraints.
"What we could see is the spies in charge of the cops," Edgar said.
"You have a DNI (director of national intelligence) who is in charge of mostly secret foreign intelligence and now is also in law enforcement. So does that mean we have a secret police? Our concern is we could be going down that road."
Justice Department officials said they'd retain control over FBI agents' day-to-day operations but that key details still need to be worked out.
Negroponte's deputy, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, said Wednesday that the national security service "is not something we've done before as a nation."
But, Hayden said, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the nation came to a "collective judgment" that it could no longer afford the long-standing walls between foreign and domestic intelligence gathering.
Allowing an outsider to help select a powerful post overseeing a massive chunk of the FBI's manpower is seen as a dramatic step at the bureau, which has guarded its turf over the years. But the FBI has been left vulnerable by a series of withering reports that assessed the bureau's missteps leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The changes at the FBI were part of a larger package of reforms recommended by a presidential commission investigating intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq. The White House on Wednesday accepted 70 of the panel's 74 recommendations, including the creation of a National Counter-Proliferation Center to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the appointment of an individual to oversee all human intelligence gathering, while keeping the CIA's clandestine service, the Directorate of Operations, intact.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend said Wednesday that she believed the reforms would result in a "fundamental strengthening" of the nation's intelligence-gathering capabilities.
Under longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI became notorious for spying on Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr., political dissidents and suspected communists. The Hoover years led to changes in the nation's intelligence-gathering laws.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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