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U.S.: 11 September Missteps Prompt Overhaul Of FBI

  • Andrew Tully

The reputation of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been tarnished because it paid too little attention to warnings that terrorists were planning attacks against American targets in the months before 11 September. Now the bureau's director is promising to overhaul the law enforcement agency, with a new emphasis on cooperation with other intelligence organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). But some critics say the two organizations are inherently incapable of cooperation.

Washington, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government is mounting a major overhaul of its premier law enforcement agency -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) -- because of what its director calls serious mishandling of evidence that terrorists were planning the 11 September attacks in America.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said at a news conference on 29 May that the agency will set up a new office of intelligence, acquire new computer hardware and software, and will make an effort to coordinate intelligence gathering with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Mueller said the bureau also will hire 900 more agents by September -- most of them computer specialists, linguists, and scientists -- to improve the agency's new focus on counterterrorism.

But Mueller stressed that the reorganized FBI will continue to fight high-technology crime, public corruption, international criminal gangs, violent crime, and protecting Americans' civil rights.

The missteps have tarnished the FBI's reputation. Most Americans have long looked up to the bureau as a group of specialized crimebusters who saved the nation from the scourge of gangsters during the 1930s and now are on the front lines of the country's war against terrorism and the drug trade.

The FBI's law enforcement responsibilities are limited to crimes that go beyond the jurisdiction of a single state, or to enforcing federal laws against such crimes as bank robbery and kidnapping. It also is responsible for gathering intelligence, but only within U.S. borders. It also serves as a law enforcement consultant to many countries overseas, including in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The CIA, on the other hand, is -- by law -- restricted to gathering intelligence only outside the United States.

Attorney General John Ashcroft -- who is in charge of the U.S. Justice Department, which includes the FBI -- also appeared at yesterday's news conference.

Ashcroft made it clear that he believes Mueller was not responsible for the intelligence oversights in the months preceding the September attacks because he did not become the FBI's director until a week before the acts of terror. The attorney general applauded Mueller's work on reorganizing the FBI. "Bob has met the challenge by shifting the FBI's structure, culture, and mission to one of preventing terrorism."

Still, Mueller said he was embarrassed that officials at FBI headquarters in Washington did not grasp the significance of several omens of 11 September, including a memo from the agency's office in Phoenix, Arizona, about three months before the attacks. The memo noted that many Middle Eastern men were taking aviation lessons at American flight schools, and warned of a possible terrorist attack using aircraft.

American news reports, citing anonymous federal law enforcement sources, say officials at FBI headquarters decided not to act on the memo from the Phoenix agent because it involved only a potential crime at a time when the bureau's agents were dealing with crimes that already had been committed.

There is no evidence that the events of September could have been prevented if the FBI had collaborated more thoroughly on intelligence with other agencies, particularly the CIA. But Mueller said the reorganized FBI will put a premium on such coordination. "We have to do a better job of collaborating with others, and as critically important, we have to do a better job managing, analyzing, and sharing information."

Many of the critics of both the FBI and the CIA -- including members of Congress -- have expressed doubt that the two agencies can collaborate effectively, primarily because each jealously guards the information it receives.

One such critic is Anna Nelson, a professor of history at American University in Washington. Nelson was a member of the Assassination Records Review Board, which was formed in 1994 to gather all relevant records relating to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Nelson told RFE/RL that she is amused by some assertions that the FBI and the CIA conspired to cover up some of the facts of the assassination, because, she says, the two agencies have so far been incapable of working together in any way.

According to Nelson, the FBI memo from Phoenix that was not taken seriously by officials at the bureau's Washington headquarters shows that nothing had changed as recently as a year ago. "One of the things we discovered was that those two organizations [the FBI and the CIA] did not cooperate, did not inform each other, and I think that you have an example of that from the fellow [FBI agent] in Phoenix, who tried to warn them [senior FBI officials] about terrorists in flight schools."

Nelson says she believes Mueller is sincere in trying to get the FBI to share information with the CIA, but she says the cooperation will be at the level of Mueller and his CIA counterpart, George Tenet. However, she says she does not expect close cooperation between mid-level officials at the two agencies. And Nelson says it is the mid-level executives who direct the real work at the two agencies.

In short, Nelson says she believes Mueller's effort will backfire: "It's probably very good for terrorism and very bad for the country."

According to Nelson, Mueller's reorganization effort may be best expressed in a letter sent to the FBI director by Coleen Rowley, the legal counsel for the bureau's office in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On 21 May, Rowley wrote that officials at the FBI's headquarters in Washington had hampered the efforts by the agency's Minneapolis office to conduct a deeper investigation of a man who is now believed to have conspired closely with the September hijackers to mount the attacks. In her letter, Rowley cited Mueller's own statements that the FBI had no advance warning of any terrorist attacks. She said his words show that the FBI director's primary interest is to "protect the FBI at all costs."

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