The FBI's high-stakes makeover
Bureau will put 500 agents on counterterrorism and have 'super squads' at HQ. Critics call for deeper changes.
WASHINGTON — Director Robert Mueller's plan to transform the Federal Bureau of Investigation into America's premier terror-fighting force could represent one of the most profound overhauls of the venerable agency since J. Edgar Hoover professionalized it in the early 1920s.
That's because the proposed changes would fundamentally alter two of the FBI's defining aspects: its mission and its organization. Long seen as a national police force focused on capturing traditional criminals, the agency would become more of a domestic CIA, with the goal of disrupting terrorist organizations. And Washington headquarters would gain more control over regional field offices, changing the agency's current decentralized power structure.
Some critics worry the plan might result in an upsurge of bank robberies and other domestic crimes. Others charge the plan doesn't go far enough and that the FBI must focus on sharing terrorism intelligence with other federal agencies, not centralizing it in FBI headquarters.
Yet boosters say Mr. Mueller's plan demonstrates the bureau's gymnastic flexibility one of its great strengths.
"One of the beauties of the FBI is that you can shift agents between terrorism, counterintelligence, crime, and other fields, depending on the needs of the day," says Ronald Kessler, author of two books on the agency.
Indeed, over the years, the FBI has adjusted to many new roles from chasing bank robbers in the 1930s and '40s to tracking drug kingpins and terrorists in the '80s and '90s. In fact, in 1998, then-Director Louis Freeh declared terrorism the FBI's top priority. After Sept. 11, Mueller is clearly moving toward making that goal a reality.
But some say his plan doesn't go far enough. They point out that, even under the new blueprint, only a quarter of FBI agents will be doing counterterror work. Congressional critics, in particular, are calling for an new domestic intelligence agency to focus entirely on terrorism, saying the FBI will always have too many tasks.
For local and state police, however, the FBI is channeling too many resources into terrorism. In recent years, they say, the bureau has lost its focus on traditional crimes like bank robbery and drug dealing and that's affecting the level of crime on the streets and in boardrooms.
But the bureau has long rushed to take on America's highest-profile misdeeds and this time is no exception.
ONE issue still under debate is how centralized to make the FBI's antiterror efforts. Mueller's strategy is largely to boost counterterror efforts at headquarters. That comes, observers say, out of the need to coordinate the bureau's people and information.
One of the FBI's biggest 9/11-related failures was not connecting the concerns in its Phoenix office about Arab men training in US flight schools with the arrest of the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui in Minneapolis. The new Office of Intelligence to be headed by a CIA agent will aim to avoid similar lapses. It will get 500 of the approximately 800 new hires Mueller plans to make.
Many of these new employees will be analysts marking a shift in the bureau ideal from gum-shoe detective to savvy synthesizer of trends and data.
Yet some say a centralized approach won't work. Colleen Rowley, the FBI counsel in Minneapolis, has pointedly noted that dithering by headquarters stifled the solid pre-9/11 work of field offices in the Moussaoui case.
Some in Congress agree. Mueller should "not try to investigate terrorism out of bureaucrat central FBI headquarters," says Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a persistent FBI critic. "Field agents are the eyes and ears of the FBI," he says, "and supervisors in Washington need to assist them, not derail their investigations."
Another potential flaw in Mueller's plan is the focus on collecting data within the FBI rather than sharing it with other agencies, says Loch Johnson, an author of books on the CIA. "Mueller ought to be saying, 'From now on, we're in the business of information-sharing,' " Dr. Johnson says. President Harry Truman's original vision for the CIA was that it would be the fusion center for all of America's intelligence, he says. "Rather than fragmenting the intelligence effort, you want to fuse it together and that means funneling information to the CIA."
For their part, FBI agents say some of the most-helpful changes are rules delineating which cases to investigate and how far they can go. Before Sept. 11, Vietnam-era guidelines which arose out of FBI probes of peace activists in the 1960s dictated that agents could not investigate people on religious grounds or because of their philosophy or beliefs. Attorney General John Ashcroft has begun loosening those strictures. "They're taking a lot of controls off," says former FBI agent Don Kidd. "They were way too stringent."
Yet such moves will heighten the debate over the balance between protecting individual rights and ensuring the safety of a nation that has become so acute since 9/11.