Revamping the FBI

May 31, 2002

FBI AGENT Coleen Rowley blew the whistle long and loud. The Minneapolis lawyer's biting complaint about FBI officials' disinterest in investigating a potential hijacking suspect prior to Sept. 11 certainly advanced this week's announced reorganization of the 94-year-old crime-fighting agency.

With one of the bureau's own joining a chorus of critics, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III recognized the need to demonstrate now the bureau's commitment to a counterterrorism offensive and its ability to undertake it. His candor and self-criticism on the bureau's lack of follow-up on two key memos pertaining to Sept. 11 must be emulated by his subordinates if the truly hard work of revamping the FBI is to be accomplished.

Under his plan, more than 600 federal agents will be reassigned from the traditional roles of investigating the drug trade, bank robberies, kidnappings and other street crimes to uncovering and thwarting the terrorist threat. Cyber-based attacks and foreign intelligence operatives also top the FBI's new hit list.

The retooled FBI also will incorporate into its ranks analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency to help decode the language and culture of terror -- a substantive organizational shift for an agency with an attitude that views itself as the premier law enforcement entity. If the post-Sept. 11 finger-pointing has done anything, it has underscored the critical failure of the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies to share information and consult with each other on the terrorist threat.

In fundamentally changing how the FBI does business, Mr. Mueller has emphasized prevention over crime-solving. That's what the times call for. That's the imperative when confronted by suicidal mass murderers. There's no quick fix here; overhauling an agency famed for chasing bootleggers and mobsters, drug kingpins and corrupt politicians requires a strong hand and a prolonged strategy.

But the war on terrorism isn't the FBI's alone to fight. Yes, the focus in recent weeks has been on the FBI's missteps prior to Sept. 11, its institutional and technological shortcomings, its insular culture. But Mr. Mueller's men and women, even as they reorder their priorities, are only one part of the counterterrorism equation.

This is a battle that has to be fought at home and abroad. The CIA is a critical component of any concerted, coordinated offensive. And as the nation's chief foreign intelligence agency, the CIA has its own house-cleaning to do.

CIA Director George I. Tenet may have a tougher time setting his battleship on a new course, however. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network have been on Mr. Tenet's radar screen for some time now, at least since the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. And the agency failed miserably to connect the dots.

Mr. Mueller's advantage over his counterpart at the CIA is that he is a relative newcomer to the terrorism game -- he started at FBI headquarters a week before Sept. 11. He is not a veteran of the agency, and his no-nonsense style suggests he has what it takes to redefine an agency often characterized by the bravado of the late J. Edgar Hoover. Mr. Mueller's greater struggle may be transforming the insular nature of the institution and the inertia that has beset its superiors.

But his response to Agent Crowley's withering critique of FBI leadership deserves mention: He wrote her a thank-you note, publicly assured her that her job was safe and encouraged others to be as frank.

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