November 12, 2001
FBI Rushes To Remake Its Mission
By Dan Eggen and Jim McGee
After decades of pursuing gangsters and drug kingpins to great acclaim, the FBI is rushing to remake itself as the nation's primary line of defense against terrorism, a seismic shift for an agency that historically has not adjusted easily to change.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and his handpicked FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, have begun to refocus the bureau's efforts on detecting and thwarting future terrorist assaults, instead of pursuing culprits after crimes are committed. The shift to counterterrorism would leave many crimes traditionally investigated by the FBI to local police or other agencies.
Preventing terrorism has never been the overriding purpose of the FBI. Many lawmakers, experts and even some Justice Department officials said they are uncertain whether the bureau is positioned to undertake the task now.
"A lot of this is being developed on the fly," said a senior FBI official. "This is a moving train, and we're all running to keep up."
Despite a doubling of the bureau's funding after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, less than a sixth of the FBI's budget is devoted to counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
The bureau has lost dozens of veteran agents with counterterrorism experience in recent years and faces the retirements later this month of Neil J. Gallagher, its national security chief, and Deputy Director Thomas J. Pickard, who has overseen the massive probe into the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
"Mueller is essentially waging two wars at the same time: one against terrorism and one against his own bureaucracy," said Kris Kolesnik, a former investigator for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) who specialized in FBI issues and now heads the National Whistleblower Center. "They are not geared up for prevention of anything. They are geared up to arrest someone after a crime has been committed."
The FBI's intelligence failings before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and its stalled investigation of the anthrax cases have also begun to provoke criticism from some on Capitol Hill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who held hearings on the anthrax case last week, said she was disappointed by the slow progress. "I was really taken aback by how little they seem to know," Feinstein said in an interview.
Nevertheless, Ashcroft and Mueller are clearly heading the FBI in a new direction. In a speech to Justice Department managers last week, Ashcroft said the FBI "is at the center of our counterterrorism effort." He has cited new the anti-terror law approved by Congress as a "mandate for fundamental change" and has ordered the FBI "to put the prevention of terrorism" ahead of all other priorities.
"I don't know of anyone at the senior levels of the FBI that is in disagreement about a need for change," said John E. Collingwood, an FBI assistant director. "Half the battle is recognizing the need. I think September 11th did that for us."
At the same time, however, some in the FBI believe they may be losing turf and autonomy. In recently passed anti-terror legislation, Congress gave the Treasury Department a new role in combating terrorism and increased the CIA's ability to use information gathered by the FBI in domestic criminal investigation.
In the name of waging a more coordinated global attack against terrorism, the Bush administration is pressing the three agencies into an alliance that would, in effect, create a single, unified federal police and intelligence system. It would join the FBI-centered forces at Justice with the CIA-centered forces of the intelligence community and the Treasury Department agencies that will operate a new financial intelligence gathering bureau.
The FBI is also adjusting to its role as just one part of the international campaign against terrorism, an effort that includes U.S. military forces abroad, a senior Justice Department official said.
"It is not a criminal case," a senior Justice Department official said. "They are not the major players, they are not calling the shots. For a lot of us who are used to thinking of terrorism as a crime to be solved, it is a sea change. And it is uncomfortable. Even if you like it, it is uncomfortable."
To some, Ashcroft's plan to shift the FBI's primary focus from solving crimes to preventing terrorism and gathering domestic intelligence points the bureau back to a model pioneered by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the Justice Department's campaign against terrorism and subversion in the 1950s and '60s.
Numerous congressional, academic and journalistic studies of Hoover's FBI have documented that, whatever else the emphasis on intelligence gathering achieved, it did not help the FBI solve serious crimes or prevent acts of terrorism.
A General Accounting Office study of 17,528 domestic intelligence investigations in 1974 found that less than 2 percent of those cases produced a prosecution of any kind, or provided advance warning of terrorism.
Ashcroft spent much of his first eight months in office coping with a string of blunders by the FBI, including the discovery that a veteran counterintelligence agent was a Russian spy and a document fiasco that led to a delay in the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. At least six separate investigations were launched into the bureau's performance, and Ashcroft brought Mueller on board Sept. 4 amid promises of reform.
"When you look back before September 11th, the FBI couldn't have been further down," said a Justice Department official. "Now they're the people on the front lines guarding us from terrorism. This is their chance to regain some glory."
The probe of the Sept. 11 attacks, code named PENTTBOM, is the largest criminal investigation in FBI history, with 7,000 agents and support personnel working the case. But it has slowed dramatically in the United States as FBI officials and Justice Department prosecutors have concluded that the al Qaeda plot, which killed about 4,500 people, was hatched overseas and left few living conspirators here. No one has been charged in the United States, and the only alleged accomplices identified are three fugitives under indictment in Germany.
The FBI has reported little progress in its probe into the mailings of deadly anthrax spores to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in Washington and to media offices in New York and Florida. Four people have died since the first letters were postmarked nearly two months ago, but FBI officials have no suspects and have not even determined how many laboratories handle anthrax in the United States.
The investigation of both cases provides examples of shortcomings in the bureau's abilities, according to law enforcement officials and some lawmakers. Local police chiefs have also complained about a lack of cooperation by the FBI, which has been reticent to share investigative details with state and city officials.
In the anthrax investigation, Ashcroft said Friday that the FBI was too slow to test a suspicious letter sent to NBC News that turned up negative for the bacteria. FBI deputy assistant director J.T. Caruso told senators last week that the bureau had little expertise in dealing with anthrax. He said investigators had no idea how many labs handle the bacteria or whether the spores found in three separate letters came from that type of facility.
"We're positioning ourselves to ask smarter questions and get better answers," Caruso testified.
FBI and Justice officials say the anthrax threat is new to investigators and that thousands of hoaxes and false alarms have strained their capacity to focus on the case. As for the Sept. 11 attacks, FBI investigators point out that similar terrorism cases -- such as the probe into the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia -- have taken years to yield indictments.
"This is not going to be a 60-minute FBI show," said a senior Justice Department official. "It is going to take a while."
Speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live" Friday, Ashcroft said, "My faith in the bureau has been growing. I think obviously as we move through these kinds of circumstances, we get better at it."
As it scrambles to upgrade its computers, revamp training and attract more employees fluent in Middle Eastern languages, the FBI's budget, which has grown substantially in recent years, is poised to increase again.
House and Senate lawmakers last week approved a $250 million increase in the FBI budget, to nearly $3.5 billion. Ashcroft announced plans last week to divert $2.5 billion in Justice Department money to counterterrorism efforts, the bulk of which will go to the FBI, a senior official said.
But most of the FBI's budget is devoted to other objectives -- from organized crime to drug investigations to tracking down fugitives. Ashcroft and Mueller have not divulged which of these programs may be curtailed or dropped in favor of counterterrorism. Asa Hutchinson, chief of the DEA, said in an interview that the terror probes have already drawn FBI agents away from narcotics investigations, and he expects the shift "will put a greater emphasis on the role of the DEA in narcotics."
There are also signs that along with its new responsibilities, the FBI will have to live with stronger oversight of its activities.
In exchange for giving the FBI new surveillance powers in last month's anti-terrorism bill, for example, House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) demanded creation of a deputy Justice Department inspector general responsible for monitoring alleged civil rights violations by the FBI. Congress also approved new funding for the Justice Department's inspector general office to look into "allegations of employee misconduct within the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration."
Sensenbrenner and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) both vow to exercise close oversight of the FBI's pursuit of its new mandate.
"I don't mind giving law enforceent tools," Leahy said, "but I want checks and balances."
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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