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CIA-FBI Feuding Runs Deep

Intelligence: Battles between the agencies over advance knowledge of Sept. 11 lead reformers to consider major changes.

May 26, 2002|RICHARD T. COOPER and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The controversy over who knew what in the days and weeks before Sept. 11 has vaulted the rivalry between the FBI and CIA--one of the oldest back-fence feuds in the nation's capital--outside the bounds of conventional controversy.

The question of why the deadliest terror plot in U.S. history went unstopped has exacerbated problems at the nation's already-troubled intelligence agencies. And disclosures made in the last two weeks indicate that, despite reform efforts at both the FBI and CIA, the interagency sparring is only getting worse.

''What we've seen in the past two weeks is changing everything,'' a Bush administration official familiar with CIA and FBI operations said Saturday. ''There will be more changes. It has made it apparent that we need to go deeper.''

From scandals of years past--Watergate, for example--have come major reforms. Already, pressure has grown for a broader inquiry into the intelligence agencies' operations and deeper reforms than most Washington officials wanted or thought likely just a few weeks ago. There is, for example, growing support for an independent commission to investigate the agencies.

Both the CIA and the FBI are well into their post-9/11 reorganization plans, which are designed to make them work better together. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has brought on board several CIA officials to work at FBI headquarters, and FBI agents have a stronger presence at the CIA's sprawling Virginia complex.

Perhaps most telling, top FBI and CIA officials--often Mueller and CIA Director George J. Tenet--gather each morning to go over the terrorism ''threat matrix'' so they can brief President Bush together.

But the recent disclosures suggest that the bickering, foot-dragging and bureaucratic gamesmanship continue.

The latest flare-up started with a leak that the CIA warned Bush of possible terrorist hijackings more than a month before Sept. 11. It continued with revelations that a Phoenix FBI agent warned of possible terrorist infiltration of flight schools. And it was capped by the detailed accusations of high-level Washington failures by an FBI lawyer in Minneapolis.

''Obviously it is still going on,'' another Bush administration official said of the CIA-FBI rivalry. ''And we all hope that our leaders ... can find a way to get their agencies to stop worrying about protecting themselves and worry more about protecting all of us, even if it means taking a couple of hard knocks institutionally.''

In the twilight struggle of the Cold War, when lives seemed secure at home, U.S. intelligence officials could battle foreign enemies without missing a step in their fights against political and bureaucratic rivals.

If CIA superiors seemed blind to a mole like Aldrich H. Ames, or if a Robert Philip Hanssen could betray his country from the comfort of an FBI executive office, the country at large took such setbacks in stride.

That may no longer be true.

Today, when warnings of horrific new dangers pour out almost daily and a natural gas explosion at an Encino apartment building sends shivers down the whole country's spine, public tolerance for the old infighting may be evaporating.

The question now is whether Mueller's proposed changes at the FBI go far enough--whether the government should simply shake up the entrenched bureaucracy or reinvent the bureau in a far more dramatic way than Mueller plans.

"In some ways, this is out of his hands now," the Bush administration official said.

But in the meantime, the debate is a hardball contest of leaks and spin, fought by the agencies themselves but also by partisans on the Hill, in news media and in the policy establishment. It is a potent formula that is already nicking careers.

Last week it was that of Mueller himself, who had only been on the job a week when Sept. 11 arrived. The broadside by Minneapolis-based agent Coleen Rowley--in a letter leaked by members of Congress--criticized Mueller personally, saying he made misleading public statements about how the FBI handled the terrorism investigation before and after Sept. 11, downplaying and even leaving out details that would make the bureau look bad.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a fierce FBI critic, lambasted Mueller for withholding Rowley's letter, vowing, "A cover-up is not going to work."

Another Republican, maverick Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has repeatedly demanded the head of Tenet, a holdover from Bill Clinton's presidency. He has also discomfited a Republican White House and many of his Senate colleagues by spreading the alleged shortcomings in the CIA and FBI across the public record.

Law enforcement officials shoot back that Congress itself tied the hands of the CIA and the FBI in the 1970s by restricting the gathering of intelligence--barriers that were lifted after Sept. 11 with the passage of the Patriot Act, which also encourages the sharing of information among the FBI, CIA and National Security Council.

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