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Line blurs between CIA and FBI

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The charter of the CIA expressly denies the spies any domestic police powers. President Harry Truman was vigilant in wanting no secret police. Nor did he want J. Edgar Hoover's FBI cloaked in the cover that espionage demands. The spies and the G-men had two distinct roles, two distinct sets of rules.

So the boundaries were drawn at the dawn of the Cold War. The CIA would find out what was going on outside the United States — and so prevent a second Pearl Harbor. The FBI would work inside the United States to catch criminals and foreign agents.

That once bright line has blurred since Sept. 11.

Congress has given the CIA new legal powers to snoop on people in the United States — not limited to investigating groups like al-Qaida. It has been granted these new powers, along with billions of dollars, without any public post-mortem into how all these guardians of national security failed to protect against the attacks.

The CIA is now permitted to read secret grand jury testimony, without a judge's prior approval. It can obtain private records of institutions and corporations seized under federal court-approved searches.

In proposed legislation circulated on Capitol Hill last month, the CIA is also seeking the power to intercept e-mail messages routed through the United States from abroad, on the say-so of the director of central intelligence, without a warrant. In addition, the FBI would like to expand its ability to eavesdrop on individuals in the United States.

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on behalf of the CIA, points out that the agency does not seek law-enforcement powers — only access to information. And the government argues that keeping the FBI and the CIA in different rooms and locking the door will hamper investigations into terrorist suspects.

So the door is now open.

"The case for breaking down the barriers to work against international terrorists seeking to kill Americans is absolutely compelling," said Morton H. Halperin, himself the target of an illegal wiretap when he worked in the Nixon White House. After many years of court battles, he won a belated apology from his former boss, Henry A. Kissinger.

"But the government insistently refused to limit it to that," he said. "Most of the new authorities are directed as much at American citizens as foreigners."

The expansion of government power to spy at home is taking place in a political environment charged by the attacks. To oppose the powers that the government seeks, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned Congress last month, is to side with terrorists.

"The whole momentum has shifted because of Sept. 11, and there is far more cooperation than before" between intelligence and law-enforcement officials, said Kenneth C. Bass III, an lawyer who oversaw foreign intelligence wiretaps at the Justice Department from 1977 to 1981.

"These people are good soldiers and they will respond to orders," he said. "The concerns are in the momentum: The whole thrust of being in a wartime environment, and how one responds to that, introduces concerns with respect to overkill. The zeal, the momentum, needs to be checked and balanced."

Zeal has been a problem in the past.

In its first quarter-century, the CIA did what Truman feared: It spied on Americans, opened their mail, tapped their phones. When those skeletons came tumbling from the closet in the mid-1970s — and after the FBI's illegal surveillance of real and perceived enemies of the state was revealed — new laws took effect to guard against eavesdropping abuses by U.S. intelligence and security agencies.

But those laws created artificial legalistic barriers between law-enforcement and foreign intelligence, the government now contends. The perceived problem was succinctly stated by Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died in the plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11: "The right hand doesn't know what the left hand's doing."

With some exceptions, FBI wiretap information and criminal evidence gathered in grand jury investigations was not shared with the CIA Secret intelligence with criminal implications developed by the agency was not routinely passed on to the bureau. Yet the once firm fire wall between the agencies was breached well before the new laws took effect.

The FBI has greatly expanded its presence overseas.

The CIA has redoubled the work of its domestic stations, from New York to Los Angeles, shifting spies from foreign bases and striving to recruit foreigners in the United States — especially Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Arabs of many lands. For example, an office in Germany that monitored Iranians was shut down and some of its staff relocated to Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian population of any city outside Iran, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Ultimately, the goal of the new laws and the proposed ones is to allow the CIA to collect more secret information, in concert with the FBI.

But, as every recent official study points out, U.S. intelligence has for years collected far more information than it can analyze in depth. That problem may lie at the heart of the surprise achieved by the terrorists on Sept. 11.

"They are now proposing to add e-mail communications in God knows how many difficult languages to these cubic acres of untranslated, unread, unanalyzed, unabsorbed information," said Thomas Powers, author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA," whose critiques of intelligence work are uniquely well-respected by veterans of the agency.

"The request for broader powers is the excuse of first resort of anyone who's failed at national security or law-enforcement tasks," said Powers. "This notion — that if we could only read every e-mail message in the universe, that no one could cause us trouble — is a big mistake."

The bid for increased surveillance and intelligence-gathering will become a very big mistake if Congress grants the FBI and CIA more power but fails to investigate what went wrong on Sept. 11, Powers argues.

"There is a reluctance to open up an investigation," he said, because "somewhere in the oceans of intelligence collected over the past years they will eventually find hundreds of pieces of information that would have predicted Sept. 11. Everybody's afraid. They know they screwed up and if you have an investigation people will find out how."

The ranks of former CIA officers who want the agency to succeed but openly criticize it as wayward have been growing since the end of the Cold War.

One, Robert D. Steele, now a consultant, says these new laws are cosmetics that cannot conceal a "decrepit and dysfunctional" clandestine service, unable to penetrate hostile foreign governments, much less terrorist groups.

Steele says intelligence-sharing within the government remains blocked by "a cult of secrecy" and "bureaucratic infighting."

Outside critics, including some in Congress, say the laws that created the present national-security structure back in 1947 need an overhaul.

But the political atmosphere today is less conducive to fixing whatever might have been broken on the eve of Sept. 11 than to increasing the government's power to spy in the future, abroad and at home.

As long as al-Qaida remains a threat, Americans may take the advice of the late John C. Stennis of Mississippi, who once beseeched his fellow senators "to shut your eyes some and take what is coming" when it came to the CIA History suggests that in times of great fear — in wars cold and hot, under threat by unseen forces — the tug-of-war between secrecy and democracy in the United States has gone in the direction of the secret institutions of the state.

As far back as 1787, during the debates on the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton warned that a loss of liberty was a natural consequence of war. Americans would "resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights," he wrote. "To be more safe they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free."