Intelligence mission troubles FBI

Critics say National Security Branch lacks leadership and urgency


WASHINGTON -- More than four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI is having trouble asserting itself as the country's pre-eminent domestic intelligence agency, according to intelligence specialists and congressional critics.

Even after revamping its intelligence and anti-terrorism operations last year into a new National Security Branch, the bureau "is a long way from doing what it needs to do to stay on top of the war on terror," Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said in an interview yesterday.

Among the problems that have slowed the FBI's efforts to transform itself: dizzying turnover in its senior leadership ranks and what some intelligence experts describe as a lack of urgency about its new mission.

"They need leadership, obviously, and they need people who are going to stick around for a while," Grassley said, referring to the recently announced resignation of Gary Bald, who heads the National Security Branch. "I hope they'll fill the position with somebody who will bring real direction to it."

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is expected to face questions about his efforts to remake the law enforcement agency into an intelligence organization when he testifies today before a Senate panel that includes Grassley.

Responding to criticism of their efforts, FBI officials say they have made significant progress in charting a new course for the FBI, and that their classified plan is on the verge of being implemented. Training for analysts and agents is being updated to meet the demands of the fight against terrorism and technology programs are being upgraded and adapted, they said.

The FBI created its domestic-intelligence branch, on orders from the White House, in response to recommendations from a presidential commission that said the FBI still faced significant hurdles in developing its domestic intelligence capability and was resistant to change.

But according to a former intelligence official familiar with deliberations inside the administration, Justice Department and FBI officials waged a fierce, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to block creation of the new division, which reports to the new national spy chief, John D. Negroponte, as well as to the FBI director.

Turnover in the new office is a major concern, critics say, because it could stall plans for change and create confusion about the direction of the agency among agents and analysts in the field.

Former 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer, noting that three al-Qaida devotees, including Osama bin Laden, issued tapes last week recommitting themselves to attacks against Americans, said turnover at top levels of the FBI intelligence operation is likely to harm "our ability to find al-Qaida or terrorists when they come into the country."

The latest to go is Bald, the first director of the FBI's counter-terrorism operation, who is leaving his post after less than a year on the job

In his first interview since his departure was announced last week, Bald said his decision was made "in the best interest of my family." He is expected to become the head of security for a cruise-ship line, according to several former intelligence and FBI officials, but Bald refused to discuss his future plans.

Bald's deputy, Philip Mudd, said he expected to implement plans that Bald has drawn up for the National Security Branch. "I'm not going anywhere," Mudd said.

Bald, a former special agent in charge of the FBI office in Baltimore, took over as the first head of the National Security Branch last summer. His job: to build a new division that would merge the FBI's two-year-old intelligence operation into more established FBI counterterrorism and counter-intelligence offices.

Mudd said he has been touring the FBI's field offices to help agents learn how to fill intelligence gaps. But some intelligence veterans say that instead of using intelligence to assess long-range domestic threats, such as terrorism, the FBI is continuing its traditional practice of using intelligence in a secondary role to support investigations of cases.

John Rollins, who worked at the FBI before focusing on homeland security intelligence at the White House and the Homeland Security department, said the pace of change within the FBI has slowed since the creation of the National Security Branch.

An earlier effort to create an intelligence division, which began in 2003 under a National Security Agency veteran, Maureen Baginski, built up considerable momentum even though she had three factors working against her - agency culture, the fact that she was not from the FBI, and that she was female - Rollins said.

"I don't think intelligence has nearly the visibility within the bureau as it did when Mo Baginski was there," he said. "Nobody is saying, `Here is our plan and here is where we want to go.' There's continued frustration and confusion at the state and local level and the private sector level."

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