FBI might lack tools to analyze terrorism

New field units short of equipment, authority, government study says

September 14, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- The field units the FBI created to collect intelligence might not be getting the information they need to understand the terrorist threat in the United States because they lack clout and basic equipment such as Internet access, according to a new federal government report.

These Field Intelligence Groups, the main building blocks of the FBI's intelligence effort, were established in December 2003 to ensure that the right intelligence was being collected and analyzed in the field and distributed to all who needed it.

But the report says agents don't take orders from analysts because the FBI hierarchy has reinforced the idea that agents, who carry a badge and a gun, are above analysts, who don't. Analysts, the report found, have no power to compel cooperation and must rely on the willingness of agents in their field office.

Without more power, the intelligence groups "could become increasingly marginalized," warned the study by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III will address the report this morning when he testifies before a House oversight panel on FBI intelligence.

The creator of the intelligence groups, Maureen Baginski, urged patience.

"You'll see further maturing and more development in the next year," said Baginski, who noted the report was based on research done in January. "It's heading in the right direction."

The report comes as the FBI is under pressure to establish a beefed-up intelligence division, now called the National Security Bureau, under a June directive from President Bush.

The report's key findings:

Analysts generally have to rely on agents to gather raw intelligence for them.

Analysts aren't being given critical tools. For example, not all analysts have Internet access from their desks.

There is no formal process to ensure FBI agents fill intelligence gaps analysts identify.

There is insufficient attention to intelligence about strategy and trends in favor of tactical, day-to-day information to support an agent's case.

The Congressional Research Service report, based on visits to five major field offices, is the first since the intelligence groups were established. CRS intelligence specialists Alfred Cumming and Todd Masse wrote the report and will testify today.

The 9/11 Commission staff interviewed FBI field analysts in the fall of 2003 and found that analysts were often used as secretarial staff. The CRS report found that analysts continue to lack stature and are asked to perform nonanalytical duties.

The CRS authors noted, for example, that an FBI analyst conceded in their interviews that the analyst "cannot imagine" giving orders to agents to collect intelligence.

Nonetheless, the report identified "areas of promise" even as it raised concerns that the quality is uneven across the 56 field offices.

Baginski, former head of the FBI's intelligence directorate and now an outside adviser to Muller, said field offices were given just three months to have the groups up and running by December 2003, with no additional money to do it.

She said desktop Internet access, for example, is "very important" but often too expensive. Even analysts in the New York office cannot access the Internet from their desks.

"This is not a policy issue," she said. "It is, as most things that come up, a funding issue."

The FBI is in the process of reviewing and training each intelligence group, Baginski said. The bureau has done four of 56. "Baltimore is next," she said.

In Baltimore, the FBI's field office is pouring significant time and energy into its intelligence operations and has implemented some innovative analysis techniques.

The Baltimore Field Intelligence Group, whose size is classified, has grown by one-third in the past year, and many new recruits have graduate degrees or come from other intelligence agencies. It also has "a few" Arabic speakers, said Donald Hibbard, the supervisory agent in charge of the Field Intelligence Group.

Hibbard has hired two former senior FBI veterans to give the group more heft.

One is responsible for reading through all interview notes from informants to see what can be gleaned to fit intelligence gaps that headquarters has identified. The other is responsible for developing the FBI's interviewing techniques, so agents have a better idea of how to get the best intelligence out of their informants.

"It's sort of been a work in progress," said Hibbard, adding that it may take a decade to mature.

A visit by The Sun to the office's intelligence group found issues similar to those raised in the report, including no desktop Internet access for the analysts and no way for them to e-mail analysts at other intelligence agencies.

At the CIA, a messaging system allows analysts to send queries to analysts outside the agency about a particular topic, such as a bomb-making technique.

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