How FBI is remaking intelligence functions

Bureau's new intelligence coordinator says US doesn't need a British-style MI5 agency for domestic spying.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, no government agency has come under more searing criticism for not foreseeing the terrorist plots against America than the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

That scrutiny has already led to a massive reorganization effort within the FBI - an attempt to shift its focus to counterterrorism from law enforcement.

But calls for change haven't stopped. The 9/11 commission, for instance, is likely to recommend comprehensive restructuring of the US intelligence community, including the FBI, in its July final report. The main question remains this: Can the FBI adequately transform itself into a domestic intelligence service capable of thwarting future terror attacks, or does the US need a separate domestic intelligence agency, one akin to Britain's MI5?

It can transform itself and is, in fact, creating a good domestic intelligence arm, according to Maureen Baginski, the FBI's executive assistant director for intelligence, who spoke to reporters at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday.

"If I had to give you a US model [for what we're doing], I would give you the State Department's Intelligence Bureau," says Ms. Baginski, who was the first person appointed to the newly created position by FBI director Robert Mueller in April 2003. "It does in fact drive collection done by its ambassadors and others out there based on intelligence requirements."

What she is creating, she says, is a top-down, analysis-driven organization. But many experts say that it may be impossible to change the bureau's distinct, crime-fighting "kick down the doors" culture - and that the US may not want to.

Others, though, laud the efforts of director Mueller, who's had considerable success in implementing changes at headquarters and in its 56 field offices. Some even say he has not only made progress toward creating the domestic intelligence operation this country needs, but also is anticipating recommendations by the 9/11 commission and the White House that the intelligence operation be taken away from the FBI and a domestic service that would parallel Britain's MI5 be created.

"They have done a number of things to move them in the direction of an MI5," says a person close to the changes. "They've created agents who are trained to have an intelligence function. They're monitoring organizations within the US that pose threats to national security ... not with an eye toward prosecuting, but toward collecting and analyzing that information."

These, and other changes, have been noted in a recent Congressional Research Service report and a 9/11 commission staff report. They include:

• The bureau established a new position: executive assistant director for intelligence to coordinate all the bureau's intelligence activities;

• The bureau has nearly doubled its intelligence analysts - now at 1,200 - and plans to hire 800 more this year;

• It's developed a clear career path for these intelligence analysts and revamped its intelligence training;

• The bureau now prepares a domestic threat assessment and coordinates more closely with the CIA;

• Its budget has been increased by 50 percent since 9/11, from $3.1 billion in FY2000 to $4.6 billion in FY2004. The $5.1 billion budget proposal for FY2005 includes an increase of some $75 million for intelligence-related items.

Needed: a change in culture

One of the most difficult aspects of the new emphasis on intelligence collection and analysis is the needed change in culture - the retraining of agents and analysts who have been at the top of the game for years in fighting crime.

But Baginski argues that capabilities the FBI personnel already have - particularly in fighting organized crime - can be easily transferred to the new requirements. For example, she says, "In terms of intelligence production from last year, I have already tripled it this year.... [Agents] are out there gathering the information, pushing it to analysts, and making sure that information gets out and is shared."

Still, for some analysts the jury's still out on whether this effort will work, or whether the US government should move to a separate, MI5-like solution.

"It is no secret that a big question you must address is whether or not director Mueller and the FBI ... is being successful in that effort," said Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, at a Monitor breakfast last week. "All of us have been impressed by his genuineness. Then, we have to think in terms of structure ... in terms of the future as well."

But William Rosenau, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. in Washington, says the government needs to be careful about changing that distinct crime-fighting culture. "The FBI is like the Marine Corps in a way, says Mr. Rosenau, who recently co-authored "Confronting the Enemy Within," a study of four domestic intelligence services - those of Britain, France, Canada, and Australia. "It has a distinct culture, sense of purpose, esprit de corps. They see themselves as the world's crime-fighting elite, much as the Marine Corps sees itself as an elite military force."

After all, he says, "The US has a lot of threats besides terrorism. What about all those other crime-fighting missions - organized crime, trafficking in illegal aliens, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, bank robbers, and kidnappings. They've done these brilliantly."

Moreover, he says, although the countries' agencies he studied have many good points, they aren't perfect. For example, MI5 has done a great job thwarting the Irish Republican Army, but failed to recognize the Al Qaeda threat.

David T. Cook contributed to this article from Washington.

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