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U.S.: FBI Director Promises Congress Better Performance

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has come under increased scrutiny recently because of reports that it did not recognize evidence last year that terrorists were planning the attacks of 11 September. Yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller promised Congress that the bureau will shift its focus from reacting to crime to preventing terrorism.

Washington, 7 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has told Congress that the bureau needs better technology and more agents to prevent a recurrence of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee came as the FBI is coming under increasing criticism because it appeared to have information about some of the people believed to be involved in the terrorist attacks but did not draw the proper conclusions from it.

It also came hours before U.S. President George W. Bush was to propose a new cabinet agency devoted to domestic security that would include several current bureaus that oversee customs, immigration, emergency management, and presidential protection.

Mueller became the FBI director on 4 September, exactly one week before the terrorist attacks that killed some 3,000 people. In his nearly six hours of Senate testimony, he said that before he took over, it was clear to him that the bureau needed changing: "The need for change was apparent even before 11 September. It has become more urgent since then."

He said it is imperative that the FBI improve its effort to prevent terrorism because he believes -- as do many other American officials -- that it is only a matter of time before terrorists strike again in the United States. "The inherent vulnerabilities of a free society are well understood throughout the terrorist community. Those who want to hurt us remain highly motivated, well funded and spread out around the world."

The primary problem, Mueller said, is that the FBI had been focused too much on dealing with crime after it had been committed, with too little emphasis on preventing it, particularly preventing terrorist attacks.

Secondly, he said, the bureau has until now been too involved in investigating, and not involved enough in analyzing the information its investigators gather. "We have excellent, superb investigators who do a terrific job in gathering the information and gathering the information so that it can be translated into further action. What we need is the analytical capability, the technological capability to maximize the capabilities of those agents that are out there doing the day-in, day-out investigations."

Mueller urged the senators to be patient because he said it will take as long as three years to complete the reforms at the FBI, not one year as he had previously estimated. The reason, he acknowledged, is the bureau's well-entrenched bureaucracy, which he promised to streamline.

"Bureaucracy" was the theme of yesterday's hearing. The witness following Mueller was 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."

Rowley's letter, and several other revelations of that the FBI apparently missed opportunities to interfere with the terrorists' plans, led to yesterday's Senate hearing.

In her testimony yesterday, Rowley said the bureau is afflicted by what she called "careerism," which she defined as the pursuit of personal advancement over integrity. She said she believes it was careerism that drove middle-level managers in Washington to hamper the Minneapolis terrorism probe, because, she said, those managers were afraid to take decisive action.

She also said it is time for FBI agents to watch terrorists the way they watch organized-crime gangs. She said criminals are not like nations, which provide the government with lists of their leaders and lower-level officials members. But through surveillance, Rowley said, law enforcement agents eventually learn the hierarchy of organized-crime gangs.

Rowley said the FBI should use the same tactics when investigating suspected terrorists. But when the FBI's Minneapolis office tried to do that, it was hindered by the bureau's headquarters in Washington.

According to Rowley, the steps she saw Mueller taking to improve the bureau's counterterrorism effort after 11 September seemed too little different from the way the FBI was being run before the attacks: "I thought I saw some impetus toward a little more additional bureaucracy and micromanaging from headquarters. And I wanted to point out to Director Mueller that that seemed to fly in the face of [ignore]what we should have learned from 11 September."

But while her letter to Mueller was strongly worded, she was deferential to the FBI director in her testimony. She repeatedly said she believed Mueller's current plans -- outlined since her letter -- were appropriate. At one point she said, "I was encouraged by Director Mueller's testimony this morning because I think many of his ideas do seem to go in the right direction and actually are quite consistent with the various items I had in my letter to him."

However, Rowley made it clear that working for the FBI can be frustrating. She said paperwork at the bureau can be daunting, and the computer technology that agents are forced to use is not up-to-date. During questioning, one senator, Charles Schumer (D-New York), told Rowley that it appears that the agency's computers are probably not as efficient as even the one his 14-year-old daughter uses at home. Rowley agreed.

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