Predicting al-Qaida's next move


FBI: With its new analysis school, the agency tries to shift gears from reacting to terrorist attacks to anticipating them.

March 30, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUANTICO, Va. - In a gleaming new classroom here at the FBI's training academy, instructor Kim Crawford is well into an hours-long discussion on the intricacies of intelligence analysis, until now a field never high in the bureau's pecking order.

The students, a variety of FBI intellectuals with master's and doctoral degrees in obscure fields of study such as Pakistani-Indian border relations, are spellbound.

That these students, all intelligence analysts, are in training at all is a sign of changing times at the FBI. The most visible symbol of transformation is a poster hanging from the classroom wall: "Imagination," the poster reads in boldface letters. "A man who has imagination has wings."

Intelligence analysis has never been about fuzzy schools of thought or half-baked theories based on sentiment. It is a craft based in fact, one that can start with a single phone number and produce an enemy organizational structure or predict a group's next move based on known patterns of behavior.

But these days, intelligence analysis at the FBI is undergoing a revolution. Hoping to gain a foothold in a practice that has largely belonged to the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the FBI is hiring hundreds of analysts, sending them and veteran analysts to this new school and teaching them to "think outside the box," as one top official puts it.

At stake is the FBI's ability to remain a player in the world of fighting terrorism and convince its critics that it, too, can provide the information and theories that could stop a terrorist.

It is a sharp departure for an agency whose analysts have for nearly a century focused on dissecting what has already occurred so prosecutors can build a case or a lost child can be found. Now they are being asked to predict what might happen, in hopes of preventing another attack.

"One of our issues has been the neglect of our analytical capabilities," says training specialist Bill Carter at the new school. "At the CIA, that's their mission, that's what they do. But at the FBI, our focus has always been law enforcement. ... Analysis is now where our focus is."

The FBI has a lot of catching up to do. A new threat analysis center staffed by a dozen intelligence agencies and run by the CIA will be up and running by May. Plans to locate the FBI's counterterrorism division and its analysts with the CIA's are under way.

To be a full-fledged partner in either venture, the FBI will have to contribute information that it develops, not just depend on scraps picked up from other agencies, intelligence officials say.

The solution of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is this new school, called the College of Analytical Studies. Almost $15 million in additional funding and 220 new analysts and instructors are budgeted for next year.

The bureau is also taking another tack - luring analysts from other agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and from local police departments. FBI officials have established a career track for analysts and put them on the same pay scale as agents to attract top candidates.

Since the release of several reports criticizing the intelligence community for a lack of dynamic analysis that might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington officials from other agencies have also put a premium on analysts. The result has been a run on the profession that until now was largely ignored.

"There is fierce competition," says Raul O. Roldon, the FBI section chief who runs the professional development section at Quantico. "It's not just the CIA or FBI, you have the military, U.S. Customs, you name it, every entity that's involved in [counterterrorism] is looking for good analysts."

New or old, the message from headquarters is that every FBI analyst has to go through the school, employees say.

The school itself is really just a classroom - albeit a high-tech one. Laptops grace every desk, a plasma screen television and surround sound offer better viewing, and chalkboards have been replaced by a "rear screen projector" that enlarges the instructor's computer screen to the size of a wall. But unlike most learning centers, the classrooms are not to be used for lectures.

Pat Boord, the FBI unit chief who oversees the college, says the room is for drills in hands-on casework.

"It's kind of like telling someone how to drive a car and making someone do it," she says. "Which one is going to learn? We're changing their behavior."

School instructors want to train analysts to stop thinking in terms of what they can prove, as in a traditional criminal case, and to start thinking in terms of what information enables them to predict. To do that, instructors want them to "be creative," and think in terms of "the worst possible scenario."

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