F.B.I. Struggling to Reinvent Itself to Fight Terror

Five years after 9/11, the FBI is resisting doing what’s necessary to become a successful counterterrorism agency.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks spurred a new mission, F.B.I. culture still respects door-kicking investigators more than deskbound analysts sifting through tidbits of data. The uneasy transition into a spy organization has prompted criticism from those who believe that the bureau cannot competently gather domestic intelligence, and others, including some insiders, who fear that it can.

Eight months after his talk, [FBI counterterrorism chief Philip] Mudd admits that some in the bureau do not accept his guiding premise: that arresting bad guys is sometimes less important than collecting intelligence to uncover the next terrorist plot. “There’s 31,000 employees in this organization and we’re undergoing a sea-change,” he said in an interview. “It’s going to take a while for what is a high-end national security program to sink down to every officer.”

The top counterterrorism job has turned over repeatedly — seven people in five years — filled mostly by veterans with little expertise on Islamist movements and terrorist networks. Many counterterrorism agents have minimal specialized training. A National Security Agency executive brought in to reshape the bureau’s intelligence capabilities, Maureen Baginski, departed after clashing with F.B.I. old-timers. The intelligence units Ms. Baginski created in the 56 field offices lack clear instructions and some are “struggling,” a recent Congressional study found. And some bureau traditionalists believe that Mr. Mudd, too, will move on from his job as second in command of the bureau’s new National Security Branch. “They’ll just wait him out,” a counterterrorism official said.

After interviewing more than 60 intelligence officials for a new book on counterterrorism, Amy Zegart, of the University of California, Los Angeles, reached a dismal verdict on the F.B.I. “If you look at, for example, the four key ingredients for counterterrorism success — agents, analysts, managers and computers — the F.B.I. is struggling to get the basics right on all of them,” Ms. Zegart said. “New agents still get more time for vacation than they do for counterterrorism training. Analysts are still treated as glorified secretaries.”

None of this is particularly surprising, although it’s quite depressing. Counterterrorism and law enforcement require many of the same skills but operate from entirely different mindsets. The former demands rapid action on sometimes sketchy information, thus leading to a high miss-to-hit ratio; the latter demands carefully building a case that will stand up in court. The idea that one agency could simultaneously do both tasks well was always flawed.

Turning the FBI into a counterterrorism agency would be akin to transforming the Air Force into an amphibious warfare branch. And it makes about as much sense. It’s not as if we no longer need a premier federal law enforcement investigative team.

It would have been far better to create a new agency, without the bureaucratic cultural baggage of the law enforcement community or even the Cold War intelligence framework for the task. Qualified experts from existing agencies would be recruited, of course, but most of the analysts should come from academe, the think tanks, and others who have spent years specializing in studying terrorism and the Middle East.

The new agency would still need the cooperation of the FBI, CIA, and other agencies, of course. But starting from scratch would allow the growth of an organizational culture that rewards the things needed for success against our new enemy, not what it took to fight Al Capone and the KGB.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Intelligence, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James,

    I think you are right. Though there should be strong connections between the two. If I was wanting to run a terrorism operation in the US, it is certainly possible I would use some of the same criminals that the FBI is chasing. And it is also possible that those criminals might balk at supporting terrorists and provide some useful tips. On the other hand, imagine the hue and cry if Bush really did go about putting together a truly useful and competent domestic spy agency.

  2. Anderson says:

    No wonder the Mafia held (holds?) on so long. There’s lots of overlap between foiling terrorists and foiling the mob. You have to resist the urge to grab the first lugs you come to, in favor of watching and waiting.

    So I don’t really buy the “totally different mindsets” argument.

  3. Soa says:

    Fitz passed on terror durng the Plame investigation. It was organized crime that was never investigated. Terror is prosecuted as organized crime and, now, the FBI has decided it can pass when it’s not in the federal employees’ best interest. They have done something irrecoverable.