FBI, CIA remain worlds apart

Now, more than ever, the FBI and the CIA need to work together. But they speak such different languages that they can barely communicate.

Is the FBI from Mars, and the CIA from Venus? They've been immersed in a kind of White House-ordered couples' counseling for a while-since September 11, 2001, to be precise. And even though they both need their relationship to work, they have such different approaches to life that they remain worlds apart. In fact, they speak such different languages that they can barely even communicate. Since the Central Intelligence Agency's birth in 1947, its relationship with the much-older Federal Bureau of Investigation has rarely, if ever, been close. For decades, the two agencies' interactions were hostile and sporadic. Since 9/11, though, their shared desire to prevent another terrorist attack on the United States has forced them to try to move beyond turf wars and talk to each other. But the organizations' institutional cultures are so different that real coordination will be very difficult to achieve. FBI agents resemble the stereotypical men in John Gray's best-selling book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships. G-men speak and think about very concrete, quantifiable things, such as arrests and suspects, and they value individual achievement. CIA officers-like women from Venus-often operate in less-regimented, less-hierarchical ways and put a high value on sharing information and developing longtime relationships. "It's not that [FBI agents and CIA officers] don't like each other, but they're really different people," said Jim Simon, a former CIA analyst. "They have a hard time communicating." A CIA officer's best tip may come from splitting a bottle of scotch with an "asset"-someone the FBI would call an informer or a snitch-in a safe house halfway around the world. Meanwhile, the FBI's cops-and-robbers mission has been to put bad guys behind bars. The more cerebral CIA's raison d'etre has been to do virtually whatever it takes to keep policy makers -- especially the president-well informed about foreign threats to U.S. national security. Those contrasting missions have attracted two very different kinds of people and produced two very different institutional cultures. "There is, fortunately, a fundamental cultural chasm that divides the FBI from the CIA. That's the good news," says intelligence expert John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "The FBI enforces the law, and the CIA breaks the law." While Mars and Venus functioned well, for the most part, when they worked independently of each other during the Cold War, they've been drawn to each other-willingly or not-by their post-9/11 presidential mandate to prevent another terrorist attack. That mandate gives the intelligence agencies a complicated new mission: Determine where the danger to the United States lies here, on American soil. Having an organizational culture appropriate to carrying out the new mission is "absolutely fundamental," says Greg Treverton, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which compiles the national intelligence estimates for the director of central intelligence. What's unclear is whether the FBI and CIA can together create such a culture. The July release of Congress's joint inquiry into the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11 has intensified the calls for overhauling the nation's intelligence apparatus. But in an age in which "connecting the dots" is all the rage as the way to avoid another surprise attack, institutional culture has been an underappreciated factor in understanding how a given intelligence agency operates and what it can reasonably be expected to do-without completely transforming itself and its worldview. One senior administration official's reaction to a query about the FBI-CIA culture clash typifies the mind-set that an agency's ethos isn't worth worrying about because it's easy to change if need be: An agency's culture "is the sort of thing that can be corrected by leadership in the agencies. The [FBI and CIA] are led by people who are not captive of that culture, if there is one at all. I don't think it requires a different mind-set. I think it requires a different direction. They're professionals. They do what they're told by their leadership." Often, outsiders dismiss the FBI-CIA culture clash as a mere turf battle that the organizations simply need to get over. But turf aside, FBI agents and CIA officers see the world-and their roles in it-very differently. To be sure, for FBI-CIA cooperation to succeed, leadership is crucial. And removing legal barriers to communication and establishing better technological and bureaucratic links are necessary steps, too. But the agencies' vast cultural divide cannot be legislated away, cannot be rewired or redrawn out of existence. And many experts in both the law enforcement and intelligence worlds say that any effort to fulfill this new homeland-security mission by re-engineering the FBI or CIA, or by creating a new agency, would ignore the agencies' cultures at its peril. Culture clashes are often at the root of multibillion-dollar failed corporate mergers. But in this governmental culture clash, the stakes are counted not in dollars but in lives. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the FBI and CIA were on speaking terms before 9/11; they just weren't really hearing each other. In the mid-1990s, they established a kind of cultural exchange program in which CIA and FBI counter-terrorism officials would serve temporary stints as deputies in the other side's counter-terrorism division. And a group known as the Gang of Eight-four top officials from the CIA and four from the FBI-was formed to jump-start cooperative efforts. The results were encouraging: Each side learned that the folks on the other side didn't have horns. In 1999, the FBI's top emissary to the Gang of Eight, then-FBI Deputy Director Robert Bryant, left. The group didn't meet again until a few weeks after 9/11, when it concluded that relations were good and its work was done. The gang reached that conclusion even though outsiders were already beginning to say that the FBI and CIA were going to have to start working together more closely if they were going to prevent a recurrence of 9/11. But the meetings stopped. And each side's culture remained fundamentally unchanged. "If we [had] kept up with this process of pushing people to move forward, I think we would have had an impact," says John MacGaffin, a Gang of Eight member who was the CIA's associate deputy director for operations. "In the end, the cultures defeated themselves." This May, as investigations continued into the intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 attacks, President Bush established the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), as the central repository of all terrorism-related information. Meanwhile, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has informally become the FBI's culture czar. His reorganization aims to reorient the FBI's mind-set-focusing agents on terrorism-prevention rather than solely on traditional crime-solving. But Mueller alone can't make it easy for the FBI and CIA to communicate effectively enough to prevent terrorist attacks. Among analysts who study the intelligence agencies, a consensus seems to be forming that the United States needs some government body whose sole mission is determining where the danger of terrorism lies on the home front and whose institutional culture marries the best of the FBI and CIA. In the meantime, the current division of labor-with the FBI working mostly within U.S. borders and the CIA working abroad -- gives Al Qaeda and its brethren a leg up on America, contends Ronald Marks, a 16-year CIA veteran. "I don't think the domestic Al Qaeda is worried about [how to coordinate with] the foreign Al Qaeda," he says. "I find the logic of Washington a bit mind-bending. These [terrorists] don't care. They're interested in killing us." The FBI Is From Mars

The FBI's wins in the war on terrorism are easy to count. The bureau has charged 200 suspected terrorists around the country, including in Lackawanna, N.Y.; Detroit; Seattle; Oregon; and the Washington, D.C., area. For the FBI, success is measured one arrest at a time, one case at a time, one prosecution at a time. Individual agents are publicly identified by the cases they break and rewarded for those successes, and they work to hand ironclad cases to prosecutors. Those factors largely define what the FBI is and how its agents see information and the world -- and make it the globe's pre-eminent law enforcement agency. An FBI agent's professional world starts, and for the most part ends, in the field. The crowning glory of an agent's career is to become a special agent in charge of a field office. The agent's mission is to gather as many facts as legally possible. Evidence in a given case, regardless of where the information is discovered, is controlled by the field office responsible for the case because the prosecutor in that location is ultimately responsible for bringing it to court. "As a prosecutor, I would always say, 'This is my case; here's my file,' " says Steven Cash, a former state prosecutor who then went to work for the CIA and, later, for the Senate's intelligence panel and the House's Select Committee on Homeland Security. FBI agents almost always speak in the first person because they or their witnesses need to testify to what they saw, heard, tasted, felt, or touched. The FBI's world is tangible. Law enforcement work is linear and retrospective. Agents follow a lead's trail until they solve-or shelve-their case. Evidence that does not pertain to that particular case is considered a distraction. Certainty is a must, and complex relationships between people and places only make it more difficult to convince a judge or jury that a suspect should be thrown in prison. And FBI cases are finite. Cash recalled wrapping each case he finished in red tape and stashing it in his file cabinet as finished business. "Facts were only relevant to a case, and each case was a new case," recalls Cash, who fashions himself a bit of a pop anthropologist. "The case ends, and that contributes not only to how you promote people but how you see yourself -- where you get your psychic gratification. I loved the end of a case." As the term "law enforcement" implies, force is an inherent part of the FBI agent's job. FBI agents arrest, they handcuff, they jail, they prosecute. FBI agents often find that threatening prosecution is the key to persuading people to divulge information. And informers are not FBI agents' buddies. "I never would have wanted anybody who I ran as a confidential informant to get anywhere near my family," Cash says. Because of constitutional restrictions on the government's domestic use of force, FBI life is also a jungle gym of rules. Evidence is collected according to rules established to protect the rights of John Q. Public. And if the evidence isn't collected properly, it's useless in court. These rules maintain the reputation of the FBI, and law enforcement in general, as good cops deserving the public trust. "They are the last true Boy and Girl Scouts in America," says Glenn Kelly, executive director of the FBI Agents Association. The bureau's natural emphasis on force and rules also shapes its recruitment efforts. The FBI draws largely from the top talent in state and local law enforcement agencies, the military, and more recently, failed tech start-ups. "The type of people that go into the CIA is completely different from the type of people who go into the FBI," says John Vincent, a 27-year veteran of the FBI who worked in counter-terrorism until last year. "Most of the FBI people are pretty normal Joes off the street. The CIA guys-they're a different group of people. Most of the CIA guys I've met are very intelligent but wouldn't know how to put a nut on a bolt. They're nice guys-don't get me wrong-but they're a different breed.... [CIA talent scouts] recruit these intellectuals. They don't have a lot of practical knowledge." From the FBI's perspective, CIA officers are like girls who don't know how to change a tire but who raise their hands in class all the time. The CIA Is From Venus

Dale Watson, then the No. 2 FBI official in the bureau's Kansas City, Mo., office, had just come off the Oklahoma City bombing case in December 1995, when he got a call from Bryant, his boss. "I've got a job for you," Bryant said as he explained a new exchange program that made an FBI official the CIA's No. 2 counter-terrorism official and vice versa. "I've got a great job now," Watson shot back. He turned Bryant down twice. Finally, Bryant called again in late January in the middle of the night: "I put you out there, and I'll take you back anytime I want. Have a good evening." Two weeks later, Watson got "one of those funny envelopes" from the FBI. He reported for duty at the CIA in early 1997. "It was a huge learning curve," Watson recalls of an experience he now says is "probably the best thing that could have happened to me professionally." Watson was often introduced as an FBI "officer," and he had to correct that. He discovered that the CIA has a strange way of telling time: 0700Z is 7 a.m. Zulu time, or Greenwich Mean Time. Watson mistook "L.A." for Los Angeles instead of Latin America. "Culturally, looking back on it, it was a wide divide of how you do business," says Watson, who spent years at the CIA and recently retired as the head of FBI counter-terrorism. "The FBI is case-driven. And we operate under probable cause, not just suspicion." But suspicion fuels the work of CIA officers. The CIA is focused less on individual facts than on connections between them, so officers approach information-gathering as creating a mosaic. They want to collect enough pieces for the agency to figure out the whole picture. While the FBI looks for fact patterns to lead them to whodunit, the CIA looks for patterns to determine what is "normal" so it can better see what is threateningly abnormal. The CIA officer's job is prospective and predictive. The value a CIA officer adds to an intelligence cable is in the connections drawn, conclusions reached, and decisions about what to include or exclude. So, a CIA officer's world is full of intangibles, and he's rewarded accordingly. CIA officers are known more for the skills they bring to a new operation than for past operations they've run. To make connections between far-flung bits of information, a CIA officer is heavily dependent on headquarters. That reality affects how CIA officers think of and speak about themselves. They rarely discuss their work in the first person; "we" is more appropriate. They'll often refer to themselves in the third person. In their interdependent world, one connection begets another, so there is never a case to close. And because threat assessments are constantly changing based on information from different sources, the CIA is consensus-driven. CIA officers are very protective of their sources, because they see an "asset" as a good person in an unfortunate situation who is giving them information to help American national security. Officers feel personally responsible for keeping their assets out of harm's way. And that leads to a certain insularity -- officers love to share information from their sources among themselves but rarely want to let it outside the agency. Watson remembers that when he arrived at the CIA, its lax attitude toward rules caught him by surprise. The CIA's world is bounded by few rules-chiefly, stay away from anyone who is inside the United States. "They operated overseas without worrying about collection of evidence. We [at the FBI] were always very concerned about collection of evidence," Watson says. "We only got one chance to do it [right] under our federal rules." The CIA values judgment over rules. "You have a source who will tell you X. Your judgment of that source is based on the time you've spent with them. You're dealing in a pretty murky world," says former CIA officer Marks. "That's the world of judgment. You're dealing with different sources, and you're matching up a story." The universe of people who exercise good judgment in murky national security matters isn't large. The CIA, which traditionally had a reputation for attracting Ivy Leaguers, increasingly seeks new recruits from elite ranks of a range of talent pools. Joining the CIA is often a new career for those who have already gained experience as, for example, microbiologists or international finance analysts, as well as for those with specialized language skills and a demonstrated understanding of international affairs. Still, says former CIA General Counsel Jeffrey Smith, "there is something to this image of the tweed-coated, pipe-smoking, thoughtful intelligence officer, who says, 'Hmmmm, what can we make of all that?' " Culture Clash

Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor who has written several books about male-female communication problems, including That's Not What I Meant!, sees a very familiar pattern in the difficulty the FBI and CIA have in finding a common language. "It's amazing that it's so parallel," marvels Tannen. Miscommunication, she says, is "very hurtful in a personal relationship. It's very destructive in a professional relationship. When you think about FBI and CIA-the implications can be devastating." The FBI-CIA culture clash reminds Tannen of her favorite-and also very typical-husband-wife miscommunication story. A couple is driving, and the wife asks her husband if he wants to stop and get something to drink. The husband says no and keeps driving. The wife gets frustrated because she wanted to get a drink. She didn't think she was asking a yes-or-no question but rather opening a topic for discussion. Likewise, what FBI officials think they're saying and what CIA officials hear them saying can be quite different-and vice versa. FBI officials, from special agents to Director Mueller himself, resort to case-counting to prove that they know much more about the threat Al Qaeda poses in the United States now than they did before 9/11, says former CIA Deputy Director MacGaffin. When asked, "How do you know?" the answer is invariably, "I'll tell you how we know. Before 9/11, we had only 17 cases open on Al Qaeda across the United States. Now we have more than 75," says MacGaffin, improvising the actual numbers. In a breakfast interview, MacGaffin, who spent six years at the FBI as a senior adviser to the director and the assistant director, pauses and pounds on the table. "They're answering the wrong question. What does that have to do with anything?" he asks. "Seventeen to 75 doesn't help you understand where the danger lies. It means you've got more cases." To Mueller, preventing terrorism means making sure any terrorism-related information that the FBI encounters in the course of an investigation makes its way to headquarters. MacGaffin's recipe is to determine where the danger lies in the United States. Mueller is trying to improve the process; MacGaffin is asking for a result-one that is virtually impossible to quantify. Mars, meet Venus. In the case of homeland security, the CIA's traditional approach seems more likely to stop terrorists from blowing things up-as opposed to arresting and convicting them once they've struck. And the CIA, not the FBI, is the foundation of the new central repository for terrorism, TTIC. "We looked around and said, 'Who has the greatest capability?' And there was no question that, for the purpose of analysis, it was the CIA," said a senior Bush administration official. "They had the greatest existing capability to do the intelligence analysis." Yet, the American public is uncomfortable with having the CIA run the show domestically, so the plan has been to get the FBI-the good cops-to think more like their CIA counterparts. Transplanted CIA agents are doing much of the anti-terrorism training at the FBI. After his tour at the CIA, Watson found religion and could translate "CIA-speak and CIA-think" for FBI colleagues. Success in the war on terrorism, he says, "is not measured in the number of cases you solved. It's how do you really know what is going on in the United States?" But while Watson and fellow alumni of the FBI-CIA exchange program have steeped themselves in the other side's culture, the vast majority of agents and officers haven't. And anyone who's tried to learn a foreign language-let alone a foreign culture-knows that classroom learning has its limits. "A lot of [FBI] people thought that they were hired to chase bank robbers or do white-collar crime, when in fact, the priorities of the bureau had changed," Watson says. "It's hard to refocus. I think a lot of people struggled with that." The FBI has never been in the business of trying to figure out how many bank robberies are going to happen and where and why-or of being expected to prevent every one of them. But that's now essentially its anti-terrorism mission. A bank robbery is not considered an FBI failure; it's a new case. But a new terror attack would now very much be seen as an FBI failure. Watson estimates that it will take at least five years-others say 10-to see real change in the FBI's mind-set. And that slow transformation, he says, will come largely through retirements and recruiting. Last week, in testimony before a Senate oversight panel, Mueller depicted his bureau as embracing change. He highlighted the FBI's intelligence-gathering efforts and praised the bureau's switch from "thinking about intelligence as a case" to "finding intelligence in the case." But the in-the-case approach is still case-based and won't help the FBI determine the overall nature of the terrorist threat. MacGaffin scoffs at what he calls "intelligence by serendipity," because it relies on FBI agents' bumping into critical information in the course of their investigations -- and then passing it along. He likens Mueller's approach to playing defense and expecting to win the game on the assumption that the other team will fumble: "You're banking the nation's safety on a defense. It's foolish." That's not to say the CIA's anti-terrorism record is stellar either. The joint congressional investigation pointed to numerous ways in which the CIA's post-Cold War counter-terrorism effort was below par, including the agency's inadequate analytic resources, its insufficient human-intelligence efforts, and its failure to share key pieces of information with the FBI. But if the FBI is going to be the de facto homeland-security intelligence agency because it has the authority to operate in U.S. territory, the bureau's methods require closer scrutiny. In the view of one outside analyst, the FBI's changes since 9/11 have amounted to "running faster and jumping higher," which "is better than running slower and jumping lower." But they don't amount to thinking differently. The analyst adds that one major change that needs to occur is in how the FBI measures success. It should be counting such things as how many times it has penetrated Al Qaeda. The current tally is said to be zero. If the FBI thought more like the CIA, that count might be at least one or two by now. Instead of successfully pursuing six guilty pleas in Lackawanna, the FBI could have tried to recruit one or more of the men to return to a Qaeda training camp, this time as an informer. The danger in doing so appears minimal. The "Lackawanna Six" weren't convicted of plotting an attack. Rather, they appeared to be on the jihadist fence-intrigued by the idea of it but not enough to endure even a sprained ankle in a terrorist training camp. Yet the FBI mind-set is to rack up guilty pleas, not turn someone into a spy for the United States. This week, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who oversees the FBI, awarded medals to the agents who collared the Lackawanna Six. A Homeland-Security Culture

A bomb exploded on August 7, 1998, in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 258 people, and another went off in Tanzania. As wounded victims milled about in the shadow of the blood-spattered shell of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, FBI and CIA operatives flooded the scene. America had been attacked, and as FBI and CIA guys ate meals-ready-to-eat together every night, a personal trust rapidly evolved. "We quickly realized that no one was really out to upstage one another," Watson said. One U.S. government official, who was on the scene in Kenya, called it "a good first date" for the bureau and the agency. The CIA and FBI have worked relatively well together when investigating an actual attack. It's in working together between bombings, to prevent another one, that the system breaks down. The key to solving the culture problem, say a host of veterans of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, is having a single-minded mission to determine the terrorist threat in the United States. The mission will shape the culture. That culture, ideally, would recruit and reward the intellectual, analytic, linguistic, and international curiosity of a CIA officer as well as the discipline and focus of an FBI agent. There are, however, two dangers in establishing a best-of-both-worlds culture-either it wouldn't work or it would work too well. The danger of the former is 9/11 redux. The danger of the latter is that a monstrous cross between the KGB and the Gestapo will suddenly be monitoring the American people: Imagine the CIA with a badge and a gun coming to a hometown near you. Erring on the side of the first danger, Bush's Plan A is to reform the FBI and establish TTIC. Even if the FBI is able to adopt a culture that focuses on the new preventive mission, some intelligence experts, such as University of California (Los Angeles) professor Amy Zegart, worry that the change will come at the expense of the bureau's traditional and important law enforcement responsibilities. "Not only are we running the risk the FBI will do a relatively poor job at fighting terrorism," she says, "but it may be doing a worse job at the things it's traditionally very good at." So far, the TTIC, instead of being a cultural blank slate, is a collection of 100 cultural ambassadors-most of them from the CIA. The TTIC, says former CIA counsel Smith, is "necessary but not sufficient." He adds that while it's good to get FBI and CIA people into the same room, the primary homeland-security intelligence organization must be able to collect information-not just sift data and details that other organizations have dug up. And TTIC is unlikely to remedy the FBI-CIA communications problems, says John Hamre, former deputy secretary of Defense. "At this stage, the TTIC is really a liaison cell linking the two organizations," he said in an e-mail exchange with National Journal. TTIC already appears to be a stage for cultural and turf battles. There was a dispute over whether John O. Brennan, a 23-year veteran of the CIA who now heads TTIC, should be writing the President's Daily Brief, the CIA's daily compilation of worldwide threats. CIA Director of Intelligence Jami Miscik, who's responsible for the document, protested the decision. The solution was that Brennan would produce a separate document called the President's Terrorism Threat Report. On the FBI side, when the bureau was filling its top TTIC job, at the last minute it decided against a candidate who had a reputation for being a broad thinker and instead opted for James Bernazzani, who was then the FBI's representative at the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center and has a reputation for representing the official word. If TTIC, a.k.a. Plan A, doesn't work, what's Plan B? It's likely to be an entirely new agency with a single mission and a new culture to match. Hamre, MacGaffin, and Smith were part of a group of six former FBI and intelligence officials who recently floated a plan to combine the effort to reform the FBI with a desire for a new organization and a new culture. The proposal, unveiled in The Economist, is modeled after the National Security Agency, which is independent but housed in the Defense Department. The new organization would be established within the FBI and would take on the bureau's counter-terrorism and national security duties. But the new entity would be staffed by a largely new crop of agents with strong analytical skills and would have its own personnel and promotion system that would prize analytical expertise. The head of the new organization would be a presidential appointee from outside law enforcement and would report to the director of central intelligence. There are many variations on this theme. The most popular and most drastic envisions something similar to Britain's MI-5 domestic intelligence agency that would have authority to spy on Americans but would be required to obtain warrants for surveillance and would have no police powers. Yet, regardless of what entity is ultimately responsible for preventing another terrorisist attack against the U.S. homeland, that organization will still need the FBI and CIA to do a better job of communicating and of understanding each other's aspirations and perspectives. And that means Mars and Venus can expect to need couples' counseling for a very long time.