• U.S.

The FBI: Does It Want to Be Fixed?

3 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar and Timothy J. Burger

So how much has the FBI changed since Coleen Rowley’s searing memo? FBI Director Robert Mueller has pushed to improve communication between field agents and officials at Washington headquarters and has encouraged information sharing with other government agencies, particularly the CIA. “The level of cooperation is much better,” says a U.S. intelligence official. The swapping of tips helped the FBI pull off two of the year’s biggest arrests: the capture of dirty-bomb suspect Jose Padilla in May and the September bust of five suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Lackawanna, N.Y.

But in other areas the FBI has done little to change its ways. Mueller has confounded some FBI insiders by promoting and decorating officials who held key leadership positions when the bureau missed warning signs in the months leading up to Sept. 11. The FBI chief outraged congressional critics by citing Marion (Spike) Bowman–the head of the bureau’s National Security Law Unit, which refused to let the Minneapolis, Minn., agents search Zacarias Moussaoui’s computer and belongings in August 2001–for “exceptional performance.” (For his part, Bowman says that “I don’t think I did anything wrong here. In fact I know I didn’t.”) Mueller also named Pasquale D’Amuro, the counterterrorism chief in the FBI’s New York City office before Sept. 11, to the bureau’s top counterterrorism post–dismaying critics who say that last year’s intelligence lapses demanded a management shake-up. “They have basically promoted the exact same people who have presided over the … failure,” says a former Justice Department official, “and those individuals took the same thinking with them.”

The bureau pledged to upgrade its computer system, but a recent review by the Justice Department Inspector General dismissed the $458 million effort so far. “The FBI continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on I.T. projects without adequate assurance that these projects will meet their intended goals,” the report said. And Mueller’s attempts to bolster the bureau’s terrorism-fighting image, by hiring 1,000 new agents and creating a new terrorism task force at FBI headquarters, have been hindered by both the inconsistent training of new agents and the recalcitrance of older ones. “There are more chaos and morale problems [at the FBI] than there ever have been,” says a former senior law-enforcement official. “There are people walking around in distress.”

Faced with that stagnation, a federal commission investigating intelligence failures recommended last month that domestic counterterrorism responsibilities be taken away from the FBI and given to a proposed National Counter Terrorism Center. Says former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, who chaired the commission: “There is a sense that there needs to be a new agency.” Modeled on Britain’s domestic-security outfit, the MI5, the agency would bring together counterterrorism specialists from the FBI, the CIA and other government agencies. The Bush Administration is studying the idea, but at least one government official has publicly denounced it: this month Mueller insisted that the FBI is “uniquely situated” to fight terrorists and said the creation of a new department would be “a step backward in the war on terror.” But if Mueller hopes to win the argument, he needs to convince his critics that the FBI is moving ahead. –By Romesh Ratnesar and Timothy J. Burger

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