New center won't replace FBI work on terror, chief says

Agency transformed, focused on preventing attacks, Mueller says

January 31, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III went on the offensive yesterday, seeking to demonstrate his agency's value to the war on terrorism, despite criticism of its performance and plans for a new terrorism threat center that would be run by the CIA.

Speaking to reporters in the command post at bureau headquarters, Mueller said the FBI had transformed itself into an agile agency focused on detecting and preventing attacks rather than solving crimes, its age-old mission.

Despite that effort, President Bush announced in his State of the Union message this week his plans for a terrorism analysis center.

The center would analyze intelligence information from multiple agencies and meld it into a coherent picture of terrorist threats. Though several agencies would contribute to it, the center would be run by George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence.

The terrorism threat center, Mueller acknowledged yesterday, would have access to a "substantial portion" of the FBI's new terrorism database - an expansive system at the heart of the FBI's intensified efforts to combat terrorism. But he disputed any notion that the center would diminish his agency's role or that it signals unhappiness with the FBI's recent performance.

"The concept of another analytical center is not something that has been foisted or thrust upon us but is something I believe in, that George Tenet believes in and others believe in," Mueller said.

It is something "we have to do in order to better serve the American public, that is necessary to make the best possible analysis so we prevent the next terrorist attack."

The bureau has been sharply criticized by members of Congress and by several investigative reports, especially one produced last fall by the joint House and Senate Intelligence Committee. That report detailed missed opportunities and bureaucratic bungling before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Change

Mueller painted a picture of a reformed agency utterly determined to shift its focus, saying that agents at all levels of the FBI have absorbed the message.

"Across the organization, they understand their responsibility," he said. "The mantra at the FBI is, `Let no counterterrorism lead go unaddressed.' "

Though there is more work to do, he said, the agency has made big strides in transforming itself.

"There is concern out there that has been articulated that you cannot change the bureau, that the bureau is a law enforcement agency, and we have this mindset that cannot be changed," Mueller said. "I disagree with that.

"What we have in our files and have gathered over the years is a great deal of information, and I do not believe that our agents still sit there and look at a piece of information and say, `OK, I am not going to report this, I am not going to follow up on this,' " for one reason or another.

As evidence of the bureau's new focus and mission, Mueller noted, for example, that by the end of the year, it will have completed a replacement of its antiquated computer system that manages cases. And he said the FBI would soon add a new executive assistant director to run the intelligence arm.

Shifting agents

Yet some counterterrorism analysts and lawmakers have said that Bush's plans for a new terrorism threat center suggest that the administration is dissatisfied with the pace of such changes at the bureau.

The center, which would essentially act as a clearinghouse to analyze intelligence, would pull away some of the FBI's newly trained analysts. They would remain FBI agents but would report to Tenet.

The CIA, the new Homeland Security Department and other agencies would also shift agents to the center. Left unclear is whether the new terrorism center would collect its own intelligence, or analyze intelligence gathered by other agencies, or whether it would duplicate the CIA's current work.

And the center could be seen as replacing the FBI's counterterrorism efforts.

Mueller dismissed such notions and said the bureau had a unique ability to collect information at the ground level that no other agency could rival.

To add to that strength, he said that over the past year, the bureau has trained new agents and hired 160 linguists. More drastically, it is replacing its entire computer system for the first time in two decades.

Updated computers

Officials have placed 22,000 new computers on the desks of agents and support personnel across the country. The old computers cannot store or send anything other than text, which must be entered by hand.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, a plan was under way to upgrade the old system without replacing it. Afterward, agents determined that the bureau would have to start fresh and scrap the piecemeal effort.

Once completed, FBI officials said, the new computer system will allow agents to manage cases, reports and records on their desktops.

It will contain a security feature to notify administrators when someone views a file without authorization and will link to a growing terrorism database. That database maps connections among terrorists, money, places or threats and allows agents to search it as they would the Internet.

"Just using new computers and off-the-shelf technology," said Kenneth M. Ritchhart, who manages the bureau's database technology, "we had a system up and running in 120 days, which is light speed in the FBI."

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