FBI intelligence chief quietly beefs up agency's role

Maureen Baginski has the unenviable task of integrating intelligence collection and analysis into every division of the FBI.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have convinced many policy makers of the urgent need for intelligence reform. By July 26, the 9/11 commission is expected to reach conclusions about what changes are necessary and who should drive them. The White House has shown a new openness to reform, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry advocates giving a director of national intelligence greater control over intelligence personnel and budgets.

Although momentum is building for expanding the role of intelligence-gathering and analysis in national security policy, the covert component of intelligence has come under heavy criticism at times, most notably during the Church Committee's investigation into intelligence agencies' abuses of power in the mid-1970s. The checkered pasts of both the FBI and the CIA feed a lively debate about how much latitude should be given to intelligence officials.

The 9/11 commission has signaled its support for changing the way domestic intelligence is collected and analyzed, but the shape that a new intelligence shop might take -- a British-style MI5, a counterintelligence operation inside the FBI, or a domestic intelligence unit within the Homeland Security Department -- is not yet clear. Most experts view the traditional wall separating law enforcement and intelligence operations as a significant obstacle to effective counterterrorism.

Maureen Baginski, who heads the FBI's Office of Intelligence, is the agency's strongest antidote to those who say the country needs a new domestic intelligence agency. FBI Director Robert Mueller credits her with giving him a vision for the FBI's post-9/11 intelligence efforts. When Mueller testified before the 9/11 commission last month, Baginski was at his side.

"Many times we have asked the question: 'How is X going to get fixed? Who's going to do Y?' And often, very often, maybe too often for your comfort level, 'Mo Baginski' is the answer," Commissioner Jamie Gorelick observed in response to Mueller's testimony.

Baginski sees herself as "a teacher, a facilitator, a provider of resources," and she says her goal is to develop the "FBI brand of intelligence."

After 25 years at the National Security Agency, Baginski had planned to leave and perhaps go back to teaching Russian, which she calls "my first love." That was her first NSA assignment. A graduate of the State University of New York at Albany with a master's degree in Slavic languages, Baginski was focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at the time of the Soviet collapse.

Her final charge at the agency was the most daunting: Create a Signals Intelligence Directorate from two separate organizations. The unit was to be in charge of breaking the codes in intelligence gathered through the interception of foreign communications or through the detection of electronic, radar, or infrared signals from military activities.

When Baginski, 49, joined the FBI in May 2003, her teaching background was of immediate value. "I had to learn a whole new vocabulary," she said. "I felt like Dorothy, clicking my heels together. And Toto and I were not going back to Kansas."

Known as "The Vision Lady" at the NSA, Baginski recalls her vision at the end of her first month at the FBI: The bureau must integrate intelligence collection and analysis into every division. So, she gathered representatives from every corner, and the group came up with the blueprint for integrating an intelligence ethos throughout the bureau -- for example, how to establish intelligence operations in the field. Some former senior FBI officials remain skeptical, but Bagniski insists the naysayers are wrong: "We are changing -- winning hearts and minds, as they say."