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FBI Reforms Are Lagging, 9/11 Panel Member Warns

The commission's alumni plan to rethink the bureau's lead role in domestic intelligence, says a former Justice Department official.

June 07, 2005|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Members of the Sept. 11 commission have been dismayed by persistent problems at the FBI, and plan to reconsider the bureau's role as the nation's lead domestic intelligence agency, a commission member said Monday at a hearing on the progress of government counter-terrorism reforms.

The comments from Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, indicate that the FBI is likely to face fresh scrutiny when members of the Sept. 11 panel -- which was formally dissolved last year -- reconvene in an unofficial capacity this summer to issue a report card on whether their reform recommendations have been adopted.

Gorelick said former commission members increasingly believed that the FBI had faltered and in some cases failed in its efforts to address problems in intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism operations. That dim view is in contrast to the commission's final report last year, which was critical of the FBI but generally endorsed the bureau's reform plans and urged preserving its position as the nation's primary domestic intelligence agency.

"We thought the leadership of the bureau got it and was on the right track," Gorelick said during Monday's hearing, which was organized by a nonprofit group founded by former Sept. 11 commission members. "We have been taken aback collectively" by the FBI's persistent breakdowns since the report was issued.

In particular, Gorelick pointed to problems surrounding the FBI's effort to build a new computer system, known as Virtual Case File, designed to streamline the sharing of information. The FBI said in March that it was scrapping the case file software, part of a $600-million computer upgrade, at a cost of about $100 million. The bureau is in the early stages of selecting a contractor to design a new system.

Gorelick also cited the harsh criticism the FBI received in a report issued by a separate presidential commission that examined U.S. intelligence capabilities.

Gorelick stressed that the former Sept. 11 commission members had not reached any conclusions about the FBI, and reiterated arguments for why the bureau should remain in charge of gathering information on terrorist threats within the United States. In its report last year, the commission rejected the idea of creating a separate domestic intelligence agency, similar to Britain's MI5. Dividing law enforcement and domestic intelligence-gathering "breaks a critical connection," Gorelick said.

But the remarks from Gorelick and three panelists reflect growing skepticism over the progress of reforms being championed by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. The other panelists, who were not members of the Sept. 11 commission, included Richard L. Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general; John Gannon, a former senior CIA official who previously served as chairman of the National Intelligence Council; and a reporter for a newsmagazine.

Monday's hearing was the first of eight scheduled over the next several months by former members of the commission. The 10 commissioners have formed a nonprofit organization known as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project as part of an unusual effort by a federal panel to extend its influence and continue lobbying for recommended reforms.

Overall, Gorelick and others said the government had made vast strides in improving its intelligence capabilities and defenses against terrorist threats, most notably by creating a new position, the director of national intelligence, to oversee the activities of the nation's 15 spy agencies.

But the panelists said problems persisted, and that reform efforts in some cases had created confusion surrounding the authorities and roles of various agencies in fighting terrorism.

Gannon said the creation of new analytic centers since the Sept. 11 attacks had led to a surge in counter-terrorism reports and assessments, but also had fueled rivalries and strained scarce analytic resources.

Gannon also questioned plans for dramatic expansions in the number of spies being deployed by the CIA and other agencies, saying improved human intelligence "is a question of strategy, not numbers."

Gorelick expressed concern that there had been backsliding in some areas of reform. In particular, she said members of the Sept. 11 panel opposed legislation being considered in the House that would curb the intelligence director's ability to move personnel from one agency to another.

But much of Monday's discussion centered on the FBI, which is already facing growing pressure to prove it is capable of handling its expanded mission.

In March, a presidential commission concluded that the FBI had made "insufficient progress" in recasting itself after Sept. 11, and recommended a major restructuring of its intelligence operations to deal with the threat of terrorism.

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