A decade after Oklahoma City, FBI wrestles with demons

Ten years ago this month, a Ryder truck rigged with explosives detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people--most of them government employees. It was the deadliest terrorist act in the United States, until the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who served in the Army together during the first Gulf War, were convicted for the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh was executed in 2001 and Nichols is serving a life sentence in prison. But to this day questions linger about whether they acted alone. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has started a new examination into long-standing allegations that others were involved in the plot and that federal officials participated in a cover-up. A spokeswoman said Rohrabacher is looking at the evidence to see whether it warrants a hearing.

Identifying, infiltrating and disrupting terrorist plots has become the FBI's primary focus. And effectively collecting, analyzing and sharing counterterrorism information has become the Holy Grail for the intelligence community.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently that one of his greatest concerns since the Sept. 11 attacks is the lack of information on al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States.

"Finding them is a top priority for the FBI, but it is also one of the most difficult challenges," Mueller said during a February hearing on national security threats to the United States.

But the bureau's counterterrorism capabilities have never been better, Mueller told the Senate committee. The FBI created the Office of Intelligence in 2002, and has built up an intelligence directorate of 438 agents, 490 translators and more than 2,000 analysts.

"Our ability to obtain the intelligence, analyze the intelligence and get the intelligence to the operators has improved dramatically since Sept. 11," he said.

The view from the rank and file is quite different, according to Mike German, a former special agent who was a 16-year veteran of the FBI. He said the bureau still misses critical information and opportunities related to domestic terrorism.

Out of frustration, German resigned last year so he could go public with his concerns. He wrote a 40-page analysis of internal problems at the FBI in response to the Sept. 11 commission's findings on the attacks.

German says only a handful of FBI agents have succeeded in disrupting domestic terrorism plots. And he is among them.

In the early 1990s, he infiltrated a group of white supremacists plotting to blow up a church in a black community of Los Angeles. Several years later, after the Oklahoma City bombing, he infiltrated a militia in Washington state that talked of attacking government buildings. His work helped crack two major cases that prevented attacks and resulted in at least 16 convictions.

Field agents consistently have to fight management for resources and support to handle their cases, according to German. The problem has grown worse since Sept. 11, he says, because managers are more hesitant to admit mistakes or their lack of counterterrorism knowledge.

The former agent says that in 2002, managers falsified records and broke the law to cover up their missteps in at least one case he investigated. He is prohibited from discussing the details of the case while the Justice Department's inspector general looks into the allegations.

Institutional arrogance prevents mana-gers from admitting ignorance and seeking information from knowledgeable field agents, German says. "Some managers just don't believe subordinates have anything worthwhile to provide," he wrote in his report.

German notes that most bureau supervisors had never worked terrorism cases in the field. Supervisory assignments typically last two years, which gives managers little time or incentive to learn about terrorism before moving on to another division.

"Since there are no objective criteria for managerial advancement, personal relationships trump experience," German wrote. "As a result, managers often spend more time cultivating political connections than learning how to address terrorism."

One fundamental problem, according to German, is the lack of a formal process for capturing and disseminating knowledge from agents who have worked counter- terrorism cases. For example, the FBI does not compile after-action reports on cases-a regular practice in the military for evaluating the performance of each mission. German says he was never debriefed by the FBI's domestic terrorism unit, even though he requested it.

"A mandatory practice of conducting candid after-action reviews for every investigation, successful or unsuccessful, would go a long way toward forcing managers to listen to the agents, identifying management failures that hinder investigations and educating managers on the proper use of their authority," German wrote.

The Oklahoma City bombing plot might have been discovered in advance had the FBI debriefed knowledgeable agents to develop a more effective counterterrorism strategy, the former investigator lamented. And a deeper inquiry after the bombing might have answered questions that persist about the association between the bombers and other extremists.

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