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FBI Now Puts Brainpower on a Par With Firepower

September 08, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

QUANTICO, Va. — In a classroom at the FBI's national training academy, new recruits are trying to connect the dots as part of a mock terrorism exercise. First they have to find them in the raw, sometimes murky, intelligence before them. Time is short and the stakes are high.

This is a different type of training; it focuses on stopping criminals like terrorists rather than chasing them after the fact.

But these are different kinds of recruits. They will not become FBI field agents, who come to this campus 30 miles south of Washington to hone their shooting skills and engage in cops-and-robbers exercises at a mock village that looks transported from a Hollywood back lot.

Rather, these are analysts who try to outthink their adversaries, and their training is strictly in the classroom.

Analysts "do not do the glamorous things," said Patricia Boord, the FBI unit chief in charge of the College of Analytical Studies. "They do mostly intellectual exercises."

Teamwork, communication and sifting of data -- connecting the dots -- are at the heart of a transformation the FBI is trying to undergo.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon two years ago, the storied agency was exposed as inept and ill-prepared. Congress and the public clamored for change.

In response, the bureau is redeploying agents into counterterrorism and working more closely with the CIA and other intelligence rivals. And it is struggling to create a mind-set that thinks harder and learns more from what it knows.

The rise of analysts at the FBI marks something of a revenge of the nerds. The new recruits are just as likely to have backgrounds in psychology or computer science as in military service or law enforcement, the traditional proving grounds for FBI special agents.

The current class includes a clinical psychologist who worked with at-risk teens and a recent law school graduate who finds the migration to intelligence stimulating, if a little "weird."

The FBI's cultural revolution is a work in progress, and few aspects are more important than the recruiting and training of analysts -- the technicians who mine data and alert policymakers.

Over the years, the bureau has employed hundreds of analysts, although mostly in supporting roles, helping investigators decipher the language of the mob from a wiretap or track down the source of a computer virus. In the post-Sept. 11 world, besides working to crack individual cases, they are helping prepare national threat assessments and participating in a joint venture with the CIA.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is talking up pay and advancement opportunities for analysts and has made a priority of having more of them. The bureau is aiming to have about 1,500 on board by the end of next year, compared with about 1,000 before the Sept. 11 attacks -- although when the buildup is complete, the agents will still outnumber them about 10 to 1.

"Once you have all the dots, then the analytical capability becomes crucial. Someone has to look at the picture and make sense out of it -- and not necessarily someone who works drug cases or white-collar crime cases," said Richard L. Thornburgh, who helped analyze the progress of the FBI's reorganization efforts this spring for the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration.

"You need someone with a much larger worldview -- with language capabilities and cultural insights that have not traditionally abounded in the bureau," said Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under former President Bush.

The FBI has tried to boost its ranks of analysts in the past -- notably after the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. But the efforts did not take root, according to the Thornburgh study, because the analytical staff was "poorly trained, had limited experience, lacked needed information and processing tools, and was easily diverted to operational support activities."

The competition for hiring analysts these days, moreover, is red-hot because of demands from private industry and other government agencies to beef up their own security ranks.

Among the new analysts is Kevin Stromberg. He comes steeped in the subject, having spent years as an "imagery interpreter" studying pictures of the Mediterranean Sea, among other postings, as a civilian Navy employee. "Having been in the community for so long, I have enjoyed the diversity of the people here," said Stromberg, who has been assigned to a unit that assesses terror-financing networks.

The College of Analytical Studies was launched after Sept. 11 to consolidate training efforts and handle a growing student body. It operates on something of a shoestring; it has two full-time instructors and relies on the CIA for teaching assistance and the Defense Intelligence Agency for some course materials.

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