Streamline the FBI

FBI Director Robert Mueller responded to allegations that his agency had ignored pre-Sept. 11 warning signs by promising "new strategies, new analytical capacities, and a different culture."

Although he refused to comment on charges that FBI middle managers stymied the investigation of the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, Mr. Mueller did agree that "there is no room for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts."

Unfortunately, Mueller's proposed restructuring does not confront the problem that led to the failure. There is no doubt that 400 new agents and "flying squads" of terrorism experts will increase the FBI's capacity to detect potential threats, but the agency's over-layered headquarters hierarchy will be left intact. That's not "restructuring." That's a recipe for continued frustration.

If Mueller really wants to know what went wrong before Sept. 11, he should trace the chain of command from the top of his agency down to the field agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis who issued the warnings. He should start by calling his chief of staff to find out what he knew about the warnings, and turn one by one to the deputy director, each of the agency's four executive assistant directors, and the deputy executive assistant director for counterintelligence-counterterrorism.

Once he is done interviewing his senior staff, Mueller should call in each of his 10 assistant directors, including the assistant director for counterterrorism, and his two deputy assistant directors, as well as the assistant director for criminal investigations. Then Mueller should roam among section chiefs, bureau directors, division heads, special agents in charge, and other mid-level managers who may have mishandled the Minneapolis and Phoenix warnings.

When he is done with his agency, Mueller should talk to the Justice Department's inspector general, who is now responsible for investigating FBI misconduct. He should talk to the attorney general about what might be causing the delays in moving information – if provided he can get past the chief of staff to the attorney general, the deputy chief of staff, and his counselor.

The more he lets his fingers do the walking up and down his risk-averse hierarchy, the more Mueller will be reminded of other government information failures, from the security breach at Los Alamos to taxpayer abuse at the Internal Revenue Service.

The agencies change, but the story remains the same. The problem in the federal government is not a lack of information on key issues, but the failure to get the information to the right people in time to act.

In fact, it is a wonder that any information makes it to the top of government. Convinced that more managers equals better management, and desperate to close the gap between public and private pay, agencies have added layers in the middle. Convinced that more political appointees equals more leadership and accountability, presidents and Congress have added layer upon layer on top of that.

Despite the urgencies created by the war on terrorism, the perceived layering appears to be getting worse, not better. According to an about-to-be-released survey by the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service, 46 percent of federal employees believe there are too many layers of supervisors and managers between themselves and top management, up from 39 percent a year ago. The number who said there were too few? Just 3 percent.

Unfortunately, although Mueller thanked Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley for blowing the whistle on his headquarters' incompetence, the headquarters' hierarchy is still not part of the restructuring. Mueller's reorganization will produce more layers in Washington, not fewer.

The way to end the parlor game of telephone that this layering produces is to target the layers and start cutting. Mueller should consult the front-line agents about what they need to do their jobs, and ask where they would trim the headquarters' hierarchy if they could.

Flattening is that simple. Only by exposing the chain of command – formal and informal, political and civil service, managerial and nonmanagerial, and cutting it down layer by layer – will the FBI fare any better at restoring accountability to government. Absent the effort, the FBI will merely set itself up for another game of telephone, and another botched warning.

• Paul C. Light is vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

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