FBI chief struggling to turn rhetoric into action

Critics say there is a considerable gap between the plans announced at FBI headquarters and the reality in the field.

The former prosecutor's lawyerly skills were on full display before the 9/11 commission on the afternoon of April 14. Armed with a 75-page color report marketing the FBI's accomplishments since 9/11, Mueller carefully laid out the major steps he had taken to overhaul the bureau: reordering priorities, centralizing coordination of counter-terrorism, and building a capacity for intelligence analysis. "The pace of change has been steady," he assured the commissioners. Before he closed, Mueller sternly warned against creating a separate intelligence agency, saying it would be a "grave mistake" to split domestic law enforcement and intelligence operations and to "leave both agencies fighting the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind their backs." At his side was Maureen Baginski, whom he'd recruited a year earlier to head up the FBI's new intelligence push as his executive assistant director for intelligence. "I thought he was amazing," Baginski later gushed in an interview. "How did he make the case? He's an attorney." She says that Mueller's experience as a prosecutor leads him to examine his argument for holes that an opponent could exploit -- and then to strengthen the argument in those places. That strategy worked with the 9/11 panel. "We were impressed with the decisiveness of his leadership," says Commissioner Gorton. "We saw far more changes in the FBI than we did at the CIA." Gorton said that the commission believed it had four options to choose among on the domestic-intelligence front: create a new freestanding agency, create a new agency within the Department of Homeland Security, expand the jurisdiction of the CIA, or expand intelligence capacity inside the FBI. Mueller's pro-FBI argument proved persuasive. "His advertisement for not having a separate organization is that everybody who is recruited to the FBI will go through the same basic training and will have an assignment on both sides of the intelligence/law enforcement divide, and people in relatively high positions at the FBI will have to have a significant intelligence background," Gorton said. "If that works, it will strengthen both sides of the FBI and will certainly strengthen our intelligence." Mueller also got points for style. The 9/11 commissioners said "Jump," and the FBI asked, "How high?" In contrast, the CIA argued there was no need to jump. Shortly after the commission was created, Mueller sent out a bureau-wide e-mail urging cooperation with it. The FBI offered up nearly 1.5 million pages of documents and provided about 370 interviews and 32 briefings to the commission. Meanwhile, the CIA initially rebuffed a number of the commission's requests for documents and became apoplectic when the panel pushed for declassification of such sensitive documents as the now-famous President's Daily Brief of August 6, 2001. The 9/11 commission is only the most recent constituency successfully wooed by the tall, distinguished former marine who favors dark suits and crisp white shirts. A registered Republican, Mueller counts many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as allies. And he clicked early with a particularly important constituent -- the president. These alliances have led policy makers to take a leap of faith and to endorse Mueller's plans for the FBI. Even before he arrived at the FBI, Mueller had already won over California's senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, for his work in San Francisco, where he cleaned up the U.S. Attorney's Office. The two senators praised Mueller at his confirmation hearing, where he was asked, once again, to straighten up a beleaguered office -- this one far bigger, plagued by security scandals, and troubled by a tangled technology system. "We must and we will confront these challenges squarely and forthrightly," he said. But the 9/11 attacks immediately shoved onto the back burner such challenges as preventing future spy scandals. The attacks gave Mueller a tremendous opening to force the bureau's calcified bureaucracy to modernize and re-orient itself. And newly instituted daily morning briefings with the president gave Mueller an opportunity to bond with George W. Bush. "He has the unqualified support of the president," said one former administration official. "He has an audience of one, and that audience is very supportive of him." By November 2001, Mueller had outlined a plan to shift the FBI's focus at headquarters toward counter-terrorism. He explained the plan both in meetings at headquarters and in an all-hands memo to FBI employees. But then more details emerged about missed cues, such as the Phoenix memo and the failure to alert the FAA about fears raised by the Moussaoui case. Mueller, however, didn't get defensive. Instead, in May 2002, he announced a full-scale overhaul of the bureau, especially in the field, to focus agents on preventing terrorism. He centralized the counter-terrorism effort at headquarters, reassigned agents, hired more analysts, and established specialized "flying squads" to help field offices pursue terrorism cases. Meanwhile, Mueller continued to campaign against the MI5 idea. "Over the last year, the FBI has identified, disrupted, and neutralized a number of terrorist threats and cells," he told law enforcement officials in New York City in December 2002. "We have done so in ways an intelligence-only agency like MI5 cannot." Given the civil-libertarian worries sparked by the mere suggestion of creating of an MI5, Mueller found some unlikely allies -- including Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Bob Mueller is a fair-minded, accessible, thoughtful man who listens to different viewpoints," Romero said. He noted the irony that the ACLU has never had a better relationship with the director of the FBI, even though it has never had so many lawsuits pending against the bureau. Romero invited Mueller to speak to the ACLU last year, and Mueller not only spoke but took questions -- and received a standing ovation. (Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft turned down similar invitations, Romero says.) By December 2002, Mueller was frustrated by his bureau's pace of change, so he fired off an internal memo that criticized "bureaucratic intransigence." And he corralled the special agents in charge of each field office on a conference call to impress upon them the importance of his re-engineering plan. The following spring, Mueller apparently concluded he needed to push harder. He also decided that he needed backup with deep intelligence expertise, because he felt certain that improving the bureau's intelligence capacity was the only way to avert terrorist attacks. In April 2003, he called on a 25-year veteran of the National Security Agency, Baginski, for help. "It was a stroke of genius to bring in Maureen Baginski," said one former FBI senior executive. Baginski has spent a little more than a year steeping herself in the FBI's culture. A former foreign-language instructor with a gentle demeanor, she has patiently tried to work through the vocabulary differences between the FBI and the foreign-intelligence community. Baginski spent several weeks working with people from every corner of the bureau to develop what the she calls "concepts of operations," akin to an intelligence blueprint for the FBI. They lay out, for example, how to draw up intelligence "requirements" (gaps in the FBI's terrorism knowledge). As the 9/11 commission weighed its options this spring, Mueller became even more aggressive in advertising the FBI's intelligence efforts. On May 26, he and Ashcroft called a news conference to signal that their intelligence efforts were bearing fruit. They asked the American public to be on the lookout for six men and one woman suspected of ties to terrorist groups. Mueller and Ashcroft direly warned that Al Qaeda was 90 percent ready to strike. Although overshadowed by CIA Director Tenet's resignation announcement, Mueller launched a precision-guided pre-emptive strike during a June 3 appearance on Capitol Hill. The 9/11 commission was to render its verdict in July on establishing a domestic intelligence agency, and commissioners were already hinting privately that they would not go so far as to recommend an independent intelligence agency. Nevertheless, Mueller would be much better positioned if he could point to plans in the works to beef up the intelligence operation within the bureau. Mueller had been talking with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., since February about Wolf's idea to establish a domestic-intelligence unit inside the FBI. "There was a reluctance" at first to create such a unit, recalls Wolf, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary. But "never once did Mueller say, 'No.' He'd say, 'I don't know if that's a good idea, but let me look at it.' " Wolf's staff had assembled a group of experts on the FBI and organizations, as well as representatives from the 9/11 commission staff, to develop a plan for the unit. Mueller was familiar with the concept. John MacGaffin, who spent 31 years at the CIA and another six advising the FBI, had testified before the 9/11 commission a few months earlier about a "service-within-a-service" proposal that he and six former FBI and CIA colleagues had assembled. Mueller met with members of the group. Its members envisioned a new career division within the FBI that would take on the duties of its current counter-terrorism and national security divisions and would recruit a largely new crop of analysts. Its head would be a presidential appointee from outside law enforcement who would report to the head of the intelligence community. After meeting throughout the spring with Wolf's task force, Mueller's staff found common ground and assembled a proposal. And at the June hearing before Wolf's panel, Mueller endorsed the plan and cast it as the obvious next step in the FBI's evolution. "We have also seen the need to expand on what we previously felt was an adequate [intelligence] organizational structure," he said. The plan calls for consolidating the FBI's 10 directorates into just five, including a new one called the Directorate of Intelligence. The intelligence directorate would subsume the current 70-person Office of Intelligence and have its own budget. Its head would be Baginski, who could be responsible for up to 1,000 employees -- most likely analysts at headquarters and in the field, as well as some agents. The new directorate would not run field operations. But it would be in charge of policies for intelligence-gathering and information-sharing, and it would establish a career path for intelligence analysts. Commissioners Gorton and Ben-Veniste said that the main difference between their recommendation for an intelligence corps within the FBI and Mueller's proposal is that the 9/11 commission wants to ensure that the restructuring extends beyond Mueller's tenure. Of course, that's just what Wolf's bill will do if it becomes law. "They've wonderfully hijacked the term," says MacGaffin of his "service-within-a-service" moniker. MacGaffin contends that for this intelligence directorate to work, it needs to control analysts as well as a large battalion of dedicated intelligence collectors in the field akin to the CIA's clandestine service -- people who are recruited specifically to do that job, will solely work in intelligence as a career, and won't just be holdovers from the pre-9/11 crime-fighting FBI. Those people would "work day in and day out to determine who would do us unthinkable harm and how they would do it -- not to put someone in the slammer." The main worry that MacGaffin and other critics have is that to build an intelligence operation capable of understanding the nature of the terrorist threat to the United States, the FBI needs a whole different breed of agent. (See "Worlds Apart," NJ, 8/2/03, p. 2482.) Traditionally, FBI agents have been singularly focused on investigating and closing cases, not engaging in arcane discussions about an elusive enemy's capabilities and motives. And FBI agents continue to view intelligence as information they acquire in the course of investigating a case, MacGaffin says, rather than as information that may have no connection to lawbreaking but is obtained as a result of an organized, sustained effort to understand terrorists' means, motives, and designs. So while grouping analysts and supervising agents under one bureaucratic roof may produce better analyses of information relevant to open cases, MacGaffin says he finds it hard to believe that the new FBI directorate will produce much beyond that. The FBI's new five-year plan looks like a corporate CEO's dream. It has color-coded feedback loops and diagrams of the FBI's post-9/11 "re-engineered" bureaucracy. It lists priorities and offers action plans. Numbering more than 100 pages, including language addressing "internal and external stakeholders," that plan doesn't seem to have been written with the average G-man in mind. It's no surprise, then, that the FBI has run into difficulties translating paper plans into revamped field operations. "I shake my head when I hear what Baginski says, and I wonder if there's any 'there,' there," says one former FBI senior executive who talks frequently with former colleagues in the field. "When you go to translate what headquarters is doing versus what the investigators out in the field are doing, sometimes it's a complete 180" from headquarters' intentions. This former agent said that, from the field perspective, even Mueller's original move to centralize counter-terrorism operations at headquarters is wrongheaded. "That is fraught with peril," he said, because it reduces field operators to pawns of headquarters and eliminates any sense of ownership, which is the chief incentive that agents have to do good work. "They've now taken that carrot away from thousands of agents in the field," he warned. Weighing in on Mueller's side, one FBI official defended the director's field outreach, saying he constantly takes the temperature of the field offices by holding videoconferencing calls with the heads of those offices. And Baginski said that Mueller is known for constantly asking for progress reports. "People know that he wants things done and that when things don't get done, there is engagement," she said. "Most people don't ever want Dad mad at them, right?" Baginski also points to a new carrot for analysts: a director's award for intelligence analysis. But when the 9/11 commission's staff investigated the FBI's field operations last fall, it found that field agents no longer knew who their contact was at headquarters -- a problem that would certainly inhibit information-sharing with the mother ship. Among the staff's other findings: Field supervisors pulled personnel away from counter-terrorism to work on criminal cases; agents complained that their training on how to recruit and maintain sources was inadequate; and language specialists said that their summaries were not disseminated widely or analyzed for intelligence value. The staff report also expressed concern about the analysts' qualifications. Reactions from the consumers of the FBI's new intelligence are also mixed. One state homeland-security adviser said he's had difficulty with such basic tasks as picking up a classified fax sent to him at the office of one of the FBI-sponsored Joint Terrorism Tracking Task Forces. Because he got his clearance through the Department of Homeland Security and not the FBI, the bureau barred him from reading his own fax. And he says that the FBI sometimes keeps the local U.S. Attorney's Office out of the loop. "It's a constant battle," he said. "The FBI has developed this culture in which information-sharing is basically the FBI taking as much as possible from different sources and deciding unilaterally what they should share with other law enforcement entities." Even back in Washington, the culture of sharing is far from being fully realized. One former Bush administration official said he witnessed a meeting at the White House in which Cabinet deputies went along with the FBI's refusal to share its watch list of terrorist suspects with the new Terrorist Threat Integration Center and instead created the new Terrorist Screening Center inside the FBI to pull in all other agencies' watch lists. The former official added that, even now, the FBI rarely volunteers threat information. Instead, the FBI is forced to divulge what it has when the CIA and its foreign counterparts come forward with something they have learned. The sources of the problem, he explained, are "money, authority, turf -- the usual Washington issues." That's not to say there haven't been improvements. The FBI's intelligence office has sent out numerous helpful bulletins to local law enforcement, explaining terrorists' current modus operandi, says James Kallstrom, counter-terrorism adviser to New York Gov. George Pataki and a former special agent in charge of the FBI's New York City field office. New York state has also established a statewide intelligence center, which includes a full-time FBI agent assigned to search FBI databases. Police officers can call the center to find out whether the driver they've pulled over for speeding is a terrorist suspect. "It allows relevant, commonsense information to be relayed" without requiring all police officers to pass security clearances, Kallstrom says. The New York center is now available to nine other states in the region, and the FBI hopes to expand the program to every state. Of course, one has to wonder why a system can't be devised to allow the FBI database to be searched automatically so cops on the beat can find out what they need to know without compromising classified information. While the FBI touts all kinds of numbers to show how its field operations have changed -- 1,047 more agents assigned to counter-terrorism (of 12,000 total FBI agents); more than 2,500 intelligence reports produced; 460 more analysts -- those numbers don't describe the quality of the intelligence or how much more the bureau now knows about the terrorist threat. The FBI also talks about the number of cases it has open on Al Qaeda -- more than 500. But "a case is not a case is not a case," notes one former FBI senior executive. "You can't measure success by saying, 'We have 500 cases.' " Instead, the former executive said, a better gauge would be the number of times agents have penetrated a Qaeda cell, or the number of terrorist attacks they have thwarted. Because the 9/11 commission's staff did not return to the field to gauge the degree of change since last fall, it did not report on how much progress -- if any -- has been made in the past year. The 9/11 staff report does offer a baseline, though, from which to judge the FBI's future progress. The one thing that's certain is that Director Mueller's external public-relations campaign has been an undeniable success. At least for now, official Washington will largely leave his bureau alone to restructure itself. Whether that's ultimately good for the nation will likely depend on whether Mueller can do a better job of selling his battle plan.

In just a month, the 9/11 commission's 567-page tome has shaken the walls of the so-called intelligence "community," electrified the presidential campaign, shamed a vacationing Congress into action, and jolted President Bush into nominating a new head for the leaderless CIA. Yet, even as terror alerts mount, one agency has been calmly and quietly riding out the report's political aftershocks: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Despite its pre-9/11 mistakes and continuing problems, the FBI has emerged essentially unscathed, thanks to the savvy salesmanship of its director, Robert Mueller, who has mounted a steady and sustained lobbying campaign to convince those outside the FBI that the bureau can and should be trusted to be the nation's top domestic intelligence agency. "The [CIA's] Directorate of Operations has been grumbling mightily about that -- that the FBI has gotten off the hook," says a former Directorate of Operations official who talks regularly with his ex-colleagues there. "There is angst and gnashing of teeth and wailing."

Mueller's survival strategy is a mix of personality and pre-emption. He listens. He's deferential. He admits the bureau has made mistakes and has shortcomings. And perhaps most important, he keeps careful watch on which way the political winds are blowing and then proposes solutions to perceived problems before other solutions can be foisted upon him.

Exhibit A: Washington insiders were whispering in late spring that the 9/11 commission would recommend not a separate domestic intelligence unit like Britain's MI5 but a new cadre of intelligence officers within the FBI. So in June, just as the 9/11 commission entered the thick of its deliberations, Mueller announced his proposal to cordon off a Directorate of Intelligence within the FBI.

Mueller took the helm at the FBI just one week before the 9/11 attacks. Ever since those terror strikes, he has relentlessly argued that the FBI is better poised than any other agency to handle domestic intelligence and that rewiring the FBI would be far less risky than creating a start-up MI5. Mueller has also tried to elevate himself above the political fray. In fact, he declined an interview request for this article because, according to his press office, he was worried that any comments he made in this political climate could backfire. And unlike recently departed CIA Director George Tenet, Mueller has not been shackled with blame for pre-9/11 ineptitude. The 9/11 commissioners and members of Congress have been more willing to give him -- and his proposals for change -- the benefit of the doubt.

Mueller also gets considerable mileage out of simply playing well with others. When he testified before the commission in April, Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor not known for tossing softballs to administration officials, extolled Mueller's accessibility. "Sometimes you've come back and showed up when you weren't invited," he joked. In a recent interview, Ben-Veniste added, "Of all the agencies, our relationship with Director Mueller's FBI seemed to be the most engaged."

The bureau was rewarded by being the subject of just five of the 67 pages of recommendations in the 9/11 commission report. And three of the FBI-focused pages were devoted to agreeing with Mueller's repudiation of the MI5 concept. The other two pages put a virtual Good Housekeeping seal of approval on Mueller's plans. "I think our recommendations are parallel with what Mueller is doing now," commented Commissioner Slade Gorton, a Republican ex-senator from Washington state.

Yet, despite the faith that much of official Washington is placing in Mueller, it's not clear that the director's best-laid plans are translating into results in the field. Mueller's message that the FBI can successfully switch its focus from crime solving to terrorism prevention has resonated more strongly outside the bureau than within it. "The field is struggling to understand what its real mission is," says one former FBI senior executive. "That's the sense I get from a number of major field offices. They're really not sure what their role is."

In fact, one of the 9/11 commission's staff reports -- details of which didn't make the cut for the final volume -- described finding a considerable gap between the plans announced at FBI headquarters and the reality in the field. That preliminary report, based on field visits last fall, noted that many FBI analysts complain they have little time to do intelligence analysis because they are assigned "menial tasks," such as answering phones and emptying trash bins.

Can the FBI deliver on Mueller's ambitious reforms? That remains the big unknown, Ben-Veniste says. "While at the top of the agency Director Mueller is on the right track, the FBI is one of the most, if not the most, entrenched bureaucracies in the country," he adds. "Getting the field to accept the kinds of changes we think are necessary is a daunting task."

Mueller inherited an FBI that was virtually in the Dark Ages, organizationally and technically. Its center of power was in its field offices, where agents took full ownership of their cases and believed that sharing information would compromise those cases. Analysts were generally people who had excelled as secretaries, so they earned little respect and had little or no background in intelligence analysis. On the technical side, the FBI had yet to embrace even e-mail, much less computerized case files. Searching electronically through case information or analytical memos was impossible.

So, looking back at the pre-9/11 FBI, the fate of the memo written by FBI agent Kenneth Williams warning that Al Qaeda could be trying to send students to aviation school is hardly surprising: When the Phoenix-based agent sent the memo to FBI headquarters and to the New York field office, the system swallowed it. Nor is it surprising that the FBI's headquarters and its Minneapolis field office wrangled over authority to issue special search warrants to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui -- an aviation student of Moroccan descent in Missouri who had aroused the suspicion of his instructor and was in FBI custody -- and argued over whether the Federal Aviation Administration should be clued in. Nor is it surprising that a July 19, 2001, conference call that the FBI's acting director says he held with the heads of all 56 field offices about a heightened terrorist threat failed to penetrate beyond the New York field office, which specializes in counter-terrorism. Nor is it surprising that in the summer of 2001, the FBI's counter-terrorism budget was slated to be cut.

But Mueller has bought the bureau substantial time to demonstrate its mettle. Or has he?

"They're on the charm offensive," says one congressional intelligence aide. "But they're going to get tested very soon, if the conventional wisdom is correct" about Al Qaeda's desire to strike again before November 2.

The Perpetual Campaign

Pre-Emptive Strike

Converting His Own