What's at the Heart of FBI Failures? Experts Contend an FBI Culture Epitomized by a Lack of Accountability and Risk Aversion Must Be Overhauled before the Bureau Truly Can Help Win the War on Terror. (Nation: The FBI)

By Andersen, Martin Edwin | Insight on the News, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

What's at the Heart of FBI Failures? Experts Contend an FBI Culture Epitomized by a Lack of Accountability and Risk Aversion Must Be Overhauled before the Bureau Truly Can Help Win the War on Terror. (Nation: The FBI)


Andersen, Martin Edwin, Insight on the News


The announcement came as FBI Director Robert Mueller III appeared to have little room to maneuver and even less margin for error. By mid-May even some of the bureau's best friends on Capitol Hill, in the media and in other Washington power precincts where the FBI always had commanded respect and even affection, were chafing at a stream of stunning revelations that painted a picture in clear 20/20 hindsight of high-level bumbling by the bureau in the opening battles with terrorists.

The FBI, warned House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) on the eve of Mueller's announced reorganization, will have to pass through a "big learning curve" to be prepared to fight a war on terror. The series of sweeping reforms Mueller presented to the public was portrayed by the harried former federal prosecutor as the best means for meeting post-Sept. 11 threats from shadowy terrorists while also bolstering public confidence in a bureau whose once-shiny reputation as law-enforcement's finest sagged under the impression that its leadership had been asleep at the switch while Osama bin Laden's agents dealt the United States a stinging blow.

But for many of the FBI's friends--as well as its critics--Mueller's changes miss the mark. The reforms might reorganize a troubled bureaucracy but, in the words of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), leave its equally distressed "culture" intact.

If measured as movement in the tectonic plates of Washington's bureaucracy, the changes heralded by Mueller, who took control at the J. Edgar Hoover Building just a week before the al-Qaeda attacks, appeared earth-wrenching. Priority given to the war on terrorism meant the FBI's traditional emphasis on solving crimes now would vie with a new central mission--preventing foreign attacks before they occur. Hundreds of agents, Mueller announced, would be transferred from pursuing common criminals to work on a counterterrorism task force. New task-force units--14 in all--would specialize in intelligence-gathering, technology and languages, among other duties. Dozens of CIA analysts would be detailed to the bureau to shore up the reorganization.

Protecting the United States against "cyberbased attacks and high-technology crimes" was listed as one of the bureau's top-10 priorities. The Drug Enforcement Administration, long an FBI rival, would be given preference in major narcotics investigations. And local and state police agencies were left to calculate the impact, in terms of manpower and resources, that the pruning of traditional FBI tasks would have on their own crime-fighting efforts. The changes were in keeping with Mueller's observation, made on May 9 before the Police Executive Research Forum, that in the world after Sept. 11, the bureau "simply can't be all things to all people."

Along with the proposed restructuring, Mueller and his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, proposed vast new police powers that give FBI agents greater freedom to investigate terrorism even if they are not tracking a particular case. The FBI needed expanded authority to monitor terrorism, Ashcroft argued, to switch from what he called a "reactive to a proactive" posture that would be used only for "detecting and preventing terrorism." The Justice Department guidelines rolled back a quarter-century of restrictions largely based on civil-liberties concerns--prohibiting pursuit of leads in terrorist investigations without having evidence of a specific crime. They also gave field agents the ability to go forward on such leads without clearing it with FBI headquarters.

The attempt to confer new powers on an FBI already under a gathering cloud met with stiff, bipartisan resistance on Capitol Hill. House and Senate leaders worried out loud that the bureau would not stop at passively gathering information about "suspect" Americans. Conservative House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis. …

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