Tuesday, September 27, 2005

CFR Member Urges Domestic CIA

WASHINGTON -- The United States needs a lean and focused counter-terrorism agency to fight threats both at home and abroad, a leading Democratic Party security expert and civil rights proponent told UPI in an interview.

"There is no value in restructuring the agencies. We need an anti-terror entity that functions both at home and abroad and takes that function from (both) the CIA and the FBI," Morton H. Halperin, a senior vice president of the Center for American Progress and former director of policy planning at the State Department under President Bill Clinton told UPI.

There has been much debate and argument that the U.S. government may need to split the counter-terrorism domestic intelligence functions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from it and center them in a new agency modeled on MI5, Britain's domestic security service. The argument goes that the giant FBI has institutionally never given sufficient priority to counter-terrorism operations, especially in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, while the CIA deals only with overseas threats.

However, Halperin, who is also a director of U.S. advocacy for the Open Society Institute, argued that it is not enough to separate domestic counter-terrorism security functions from existing giant bureaucracies. Islamist extremist organizations like al-Qaida operate around the world while trying to pull off major attacks and build underground infrastructures within the United States. Therefore to fight them, a U.S. counter-terror agency must be free to operate both abroad and at home, he said.

"You don't (maintain) separate law enforcement from (the) intelligence function. It would be counter-productive," Halperin said. "There is no distinction when you're fighting terrorism between domestic and abroad, or between intelligence and enforcement."

"Neither the CIA nor the FBI are structured to fight this (kind of war)," he said.

"We now know that seven or eight Americans were close enough to Osama bin Laden (before Sept. 11, 2001) to know something terrible was going to happen. None of them were CIA or FBI," Halperin said. "The FBI gets defectors. They don't know how to recruit people. The CIA structure with its relatively high profile fixed stations around the world is not the way to infiltrate international terrorist organizations."

Separating anti-terrorism functions in both intelligence gathering and operations from both the CIA and the FBI would also be a major boost for the cause of maintaining civil liberties while fighting the war against terror more effectively, Halperin said.

"This also helps civil liberties. You give this new agency and no one else powers they need to fight this threat. And you give it vigorous oversight," he said.

Halperin also said that curtailment of civil liberties did not automatically make the fight against terror more effective. Often precisely the opposite was the case, he said.

"Dick Clark (Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) said that he never saw a limitation on civil liberties that would help you fight the terrorism threat. I believe that is true," Halperin said. "The problem comes if you put sacrificing civil liberties in front of the other fighting the terrorism."

Very often, giving police and domestic security services, a free hand to investigate or crack down on what should be legitimate public political activity only gave them an excuse to ignore the far more dangerous and clandestine operations of espionage organizations and terrorist groups, Halperin said.

"It's a lot easier to investigate lawful political activity than to infiltrate al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations," he said. "When you let law enforcement go after lawful political activity, genuine counter-terrorist operations suffer. It's a threat to effective law enforcement.

"We now know there were high Soviet spies in the U.S. government throughout the Cold War yet the FBI was obsessed with whether Martin Luther King was a communist."

The widely publicized mistreatment of terror suspects and other prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba had also done very serious damage to the crucial public diplomacy and public opinion aspects of the war against terror, Halperin said.

"This is a global war about ideas and we undermined our own case when we treat prisoners badly at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo," he said. "As a result, repressive regimes around the world, for example, in Uzbekistan, can seek to use the negative precedents that we set to justify their own oppression."

"I think conditions now at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are probably getting a little better but it's clear that there are still things going on there that should not be," Halperin said. "The rule of law is not operating there. As many memos have revealed, there is still a widespread sense that the administration is above the law and they haven't abandoned it."

"We are very much isolated in the world. The administration's policies are isolating us from our European allies on issues such as our insistence on the death penalty. And we refuse to give information to them to bring terrorist suspects to judgment. When you pick up people on the streets of Italy and disappear them, you're cutting yourself off from your natural allies. (However) I think this isolating policy is reversible." We should be able to do law enforcement and intelligence at the same time.

Halperin told UPI he feared a lot of energy and resources in the Department of Homeland Security was going into taking precautions against attacks that al-Qaida and other groups could not now replicate however much they wanted to, while resources to defend crucial infrastructures like power stations and major chemical plants had been dangerously neglected.

"They're not going to board a plane again and hijack it," he said. "The people won't let them because everyone knows now. Once you know what the people on the plane in Pennsylvania did, you can't hijack a plane anymore. People will charge the hijackers."

As it is, he said, "We have a long and silly list of people who can't go on planes. That is not a responsible response."

By contrast, Halperin said, "There are at least 100 major chemical plants in close proximity of urban areas with more than a million people whose security against terrorist attack has not yet been sufficiently secured.

Halperin was citing conclusions reached by the Congressional Research Service. Richard A. Clarke, former counter-terrorism chief for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush told a meeting at the New America Foundation on Aug. 30 that the number of such plants at risk had been slightly reduced over the past four years, but only from 123 to 110 today.

On civil rights, Halperin voiced optimism that Republicans as well as Democrats in both houses of Congress. "In the House version of the Patriot Act (there remain) many small bad things," he said. "(However) the Senate version is a significant step forward. It doesn't change what the security agencies can get access to but it requires them to define their terms more tightly."

"You now have two serious Republican challenges to the administration:

The McCain Amendment and the (Sen. Arlen) Specter bill," he said. "Both of them have significant political support. If they stick, it could be a turning point."

"A lot is hinging on these two fights," Halperin said. "The Specter bill passed the Senate unanimously and there is some support in the House for both bills. There is a lot of unease in the House on the Patriot Act including among Republicans. The question is, if it comes to a vote, then both might pass.

"It's especially likely that the Specter bill will pass," Specter said. It is a lot easier for House Republicans to support it because Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) have come out in support of it. That will give a lot of House Republicans them political cover."

The increased concern for the protection of civil rights in Congress reflected a broad, general change around the nation, Halperin said. "People are coming back," he said. "There is a growing sense in the country that whatever you think about the Iraq invasion, we have to recognize that this is a long struggle."

In some respects, the strategic picture in the war against terror and on the protection of civil rights was now a lot better than it was immediately after the Sept.11, 2001, mega-terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and mauled the Pentagon, Halperin said.

"They don't have the capacity to do a 9/11 every two weeks as we feared after the New York and Washington, DC attacks," he said. "And there is a growing willingness on the part of centrists and moderates Republicans in this country to speak out."

"There is still clearly a fight going on in the administration. The way we've treated Muslims in particular and immigrants in general tightening of visas are making difficult the kind of cooperation we need from the Muslim community to fight this struggle," Halperin said. "The violations in the United States have largely been focused on the immigrants."

"I'm not sure there's been a centralization of power," he said. "I am much more concerned about the leadership of the administration and its attitude."

The threat to civil rights and the open expression of legitimate political dissent "is less intense and less sweeping and has had less impact on our policies than what happened in the 1950s and 1960s," Halperin said. "(However) there is a danger that if we see another terrorist attack (attitudes could become much more extreme."

Much credit went to the judicial system that acted early to prevent sweeping abuses, Halperin said. "If the administration had not over-reached so soon, I think the courts would not have reacted so soon," he said.

Nevertheless, some of the new administrative powers the administration had declared remained very worrying, he said. "The president can make up a category secretly and put someone in custody on the basis of it and say that no court can act upon it. I find it astonishing that there has not been more outrage on that.

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