One of the first victories in the war on terrorism took place this week: intelligence agencies located and shut down two financial organizations that have funded the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
This victory represents a new era for US intelligence agencies:
1. Instead of mostly playing defense as they did during the cold war against the Soviets, the agencies must now take the offense by disrupting and destroying the enemy.
2. Old walls between domestic and foreign intelligence officials, and between intelligence in general and law enforcement, have broken down fast since Sept. 11.
Just as World War II created the OSS spy agency, and the cold war created the CIA, a new type of spying and covert action is needed. This new war has no boundaries and hits Americans in their homeland. The enemy, carrying a box cutter, can blend into a Saudi bazaar as well as he can into a United Airlines passenger seat.
Of course, the time to fix a firetruck isn't when it's racing to a fire. US spying agencies are working full tilt right now. Still, two months after Sept. 11 and a month into the war, moves are afoot to reform the dozen or so separate intelligence agencies that have been accused of failing to anticipate - let alone stop - the plane hijackings.
A presidential commission is expected to recommend soon that three large intelligence-collection agencies under the Pentagon be transferred to the CIA. Such a step would help centralize much of the intelligence work and bring more accountability. And the new antiterrorism law just passed by Congress, known as the USA Patriot Act, shifts the FBI's primary mission from solving crimes to gathering domestic intelligence. And the Treasury Department will be creating its own financial intelligence-gathering system.
Such steps, if speedily done, can help safeguard Americans, while creating a new culture at US intelligence agencies that will be more effective.