Can FBI and CIA cooperate?
Lawmakers meet in secret this week to parse evidence of 9/11 intelligence failures
WASHINGTON — Meeting in soundproofed, secure rooms at the US Capitol, lawmakers this week are probing the failure of the CIA and FBI to put together crucial facts and foil the 9/11 attacks.
A geyser of reported leaks in recent weeks gives the impression of key government agencies being unwilling or unable to share and analyze crucial information to protect US citizens from terrorism.
At the heart of this unfolding drama lies a central question: What reforms would effectively get intelligence and law-enforcement organizations to work together for the public good?
It's a quandary that has vexed American leaders back, at least, to Harry Truman, who created the CIA partly out of frustration that the government didn't fuse available data and foresee the strike on Pearl Harbor.
Today, there is a range of views about how to proceed.
Some say a so-far-reluctant President Bush must crack the whip on the bureaucracy. Others say only another terrorist incident and the popular ire that would result could do the job.
"The fact that nine months have gone by since the attack and we're just now getting people in government to turn over evidence [of failures] shows the depth and breadth of the problem," says former Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, who co-chaired a recent anti-terrorism commission.
One school of thought among reformers focuses on the bureaucratic architecture. The CIA's small counterterrorism center is one of the few spots where cooperation is fostered between many agencies. Its staff has reportedly doubled to about 1,000 since 9/11 still only a minuscule part of the overall intelligence apparatus. A broader "national fusion center" proposed by Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania would begin expand the collaboration concept.
Another trouble with the bureaucracy's design, critics say, is the weakness of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). The DCI heads the CIA and is nominally in charge of all other intelligence agencies. But the Defense Department controls the budgets of three key agencies: the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and the National Security Agency. This convoluted arrangement arguably hampers fusion.
Another school of thought eyes reform of various processes not rearranging an organization chart. First, all the agencies need computer systems that can talk to each other. Under the current "stovepipe" approach "it's very hard to find your counterpart at other agencies," says James Harris, a former top CIA official.
If interagency chats were possible, it could create "the intelligence equivalent of Internet message boards" that encourage free-wheeling discussions, he says. The danger, however, is that such discussions would compromise secret data.
Still another school of thought says it is personnel and their mentality that needs changing. An older FBI agent will never really stop focusing on "bank robbers and Russian spies," says Senator Hart, who favors hiring younger, savvier agents and giving them autonomy.
Few changes will happen, however, without White House clout. So far, President Bush is taking a go-slow approach.
"There are an awful lot of folks in Congress who have strong opinions about the answer" to agency cooperation, says a senior administration official. "And I'm not sure we've correctly identified the problem yet." He says the White House is "working to optimize processes" rather than upend agencies just to make it appear that things are happening.
But Hart says the administration is being too cautious. "If there's another attack tomorrow, the American people are going to get angry real fast." Ironically, he says, that could ultimately be the thing that sparks real change.
Meanwhile, the agencies appear caught up in a blame-avoiding contest.
Last week, scrutiny was on the FBI for bungling clues about Al Qaeda men training in US flight schools and because of FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley's letter criticizing her agency's top brass.
Then, last weekend, Newsweek reported that the CIA had been tracking two 9/11 hijackers for months, including at a January 2000 Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia but that it didn't tell the FBI when the men later came to the US. The FBI then claimed it might have been able to uncover the plot had it been informed by the CIA about these men. But Monday, the CIA reportedly said it has proof it did tell the FBI.
USAToday reported yesterday the CIA may have had operatives inside Al Qaeda but still wasn't able to prevent the attack. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the New York Times Monday that his intelligence service had a mole in Al Qaeda and tried to warn US officials before 9/11.
The tit-for-tat CIA-FBI rivalry isn't new. At one low point three decades ago, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and CIA chief Richard Helms simply stopped talking to each other.But many inside the two agencies say the mythic clash of cultures between tweedy CIA analysts and square-jawed FBI gumshoes is often overblown in the media. "It's nonsense," says Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former top FBI official. The difference in their traditional missions, he says, has created the gulf.
Now, however, both agencies have a top priority of preventing future attacks. So their missions are dovetailing and there may be an opportunity to improve the relationship. But the question remains how best to create the change.