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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.


CIA and FBI officials have been maneuvering frantically to shift blame for missing signs of impending domestic terrorism. Both have resorted to orchestrated news leaks and spin-doctoring.

In the most fundamental split, the FBI says the Sept. 11 plot was hatched overseas--in the CIA's domain--while the agency notes that the 19 hijackers roamed extensively through the FBI's U.S. territory.

Until recently, no one outside a small circle of government officials knew that on Aug. 6, more than a month before the attacks, the CIA's daily briefing for the president included a warning that Al Qaeda might contemplate hijacking U.S. aircraft. Public disclosure of the briefing created significant political problems for the White House but also cast the agency in the flattering light of having issued an unheeded warning.

Normally, daily intelligence briefings for the president are among the CIA's most closely guarded secrets. How did congressional investigators learn about the Aug. 6 briefing?

The answer, congressional sources said, is that they were tipped off by officials in the CIA's office of congressional affairs.

Congressional aides described it as an atypically cooperative gesture from a CIA office that had previously been accused by lawmakers of hindering the probe.

"It was like, 'Gee, you might want to look at Aug. 6,'" said one aide. "'We hear that was pretty interesting."'

The information was leaked to the media two days later and was first mentioned on the CBS Evening News on May 15.

The CIA has also aimed elbows at the FBI. The agency particularly seemed to enjoy fallout from the recent disclosure of the so-called Phoenix memo of July 10, in which an FBI agent in Arizona urged bureau headquarters to investigate Middle Eastern men possibly training for terrorist missions at U.S. flight schools.

The leak of that memo--and the FBI's failure to act on it--began a firestorm of criticism.

The CIA seemed to pile on. The agency first declared that it hadn't received the memo until recently; a CIA official then described it as a "remarkable document" that almost certainly would have set off a significant inquiry if the FBI had shared it before it was too late.

Within a day, the FBI anonymously declared that it had shared at least portions of the memo with the CIA. So if the bureau was in the soup, the CIA was with it.

The feud between the CIA and the FBI goes back more than half a century and reflects divergent cultures that all agree must change.

In the 1940s, when the Central Intelligence Agency was created to coordinate America's response to the emerging threat of global communism, the new agency was barred from operating inside the United States. But it received sole responsibility for intelligence and counter-intelligence overseas.

That meant the FBI had to withdraw dozens of agents from posts abroad, which infuriated J. Edgar Hoover, who had made his "G-men" legendary, zealously guarding their turf and his own.

And from the beginning, the cultures of the two institutions could not have been more different. The CIA was a self-consciously cosmopolitan and intellectual elite, patterned after the Oxbridge traditions of the British Secret Service and molded in the blue-blooded Ivy League image of its first director, Allen Dulles.

The FBI saw itself as equally elite but was made of commoner clay. If the CIA was disdainfully aristocratic, the FBI was defiantly middle class, with its lawyers and accountants in their stodgy but mandatory black shoes, white shirts and felt hats.

Even without those cultural differences, the FBI and the CIA face each other across a chasm:

One is devoted to espionage, operating overseas and outside the restrictions of U.S. law. Its goal is gathering information and subverting the enemy by any means.

It subscribes to Winston Churchill's dictum that, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." And for the CIA, all time is wartime.

The FBI, by contrast, is a law enforcement organization, dedicated to prosecuting criminals, not just gathering information.

And it is answerable to the strict standards of the American legal system.

When it has fallen short of those standards, as critics say it did during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, its pursuit of radicals during the 1970s and more recently with the Branch Davidians and at Ruby Ridge, it has been harshly criticized, while the CIA has largely escaped such scrutiny for its dirty tricks abroad.

But the cultures share at least one important characteristic: Both tend to feel that no outsider can judge them and both put loyalty to the organization above all else.

That's why the letter from the FBI's Rowley broke like a thunderclap late last week. It was that rarest of things: criticism from inside.

And, sure enough, it became public through a leak.


Times staff writers Bob Drogin and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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