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FBI called slow to join terror fight

Senate panel wonders whether the bureau can transform itself.

May 09, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nearly seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI "has yet to make the dramatic leaps necessary" to become an effective intelligence-gathering organization and protect the country from terrorism, a congressional analysis released Thursday said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee recommended that the bureau yield more of its historic autonomy to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and that "performance metrics and specific timetables" be established to address a variety of shortcomings.

The panel found widespread problems in the FBI intelligence program, including gaps in the training and deployment of hundreds of analysts hired since Sept. 11, 2001, to assess threats to the nation. Field Intelligence Groups, which are considered the front lines of the intelligence effort in FBI field offices around the country, are "poorly staffed, are led overwhelmingly by special agents, and are often 'surged' to other FBI priorities," the report said.

The bureau has also struggled to fill key national security and intelligence positions at FBI headquarters. The report found that more than 20% of the supervisory positions in the section at headquarters that covers Al Qaeda-related cases were vacant.

The critique is the latest to question whether the bureau -- which is celebrating its centennial this year -- can effectively transform itself from a law enforcement organization to one that also roots out terrorists before they strike. Its progress was questioned by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, which gave the FBI a "C" in a December 2005 report card grading the implementation of its recommended reforms.

The bureau has recently acknowledged pressure from the White House Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides advice to the president on the quality and adequacy of intelligence operations. It has also conceded that it is having trouble starting up a program to collect intelligence on foreign powers operating in the U.S., two years after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence directed it to start collecting the information.

"There is an enormous gap between current and future capabilities," the bureau said in documents supporting its 2009 budget request to Congress.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the House Judiciary Committee last month that the bureau was taking new steps to "accelerate our progress." Those moves, he said, included hiring the consulting firm of McKinsey and Co. and creating a "strategic execution team" of field and headquarters personnel to make changes more quickly.

The latest assessment was contained in a report accompanying a bill that sets out the intelligence community's policies, programs and spending for fiscal year 2009. An unclassified summary was released Thursday.

"While we will review the committee's report, over the last year the FBI has initiated a coordinated and sweeping set of programs to address many of the issues cited in the report," John Miller, the bureau's head of public affairs, said in a statement Thursday. "Nearly 100 bureau employees, more than half of them drawn from the field offices, have worked hand in hand with headquarters' managers to find lasting solutions."

Among the Senate committee's other findings:

* The FBI is still without an effective training program for intelligence analysts despite "revamping" training almost every year since 2002.

* Most intelligence analysts are supervised by special agents who have little or no experience conducting intelligence analyses.

* The bureau has hired just two "senior intelligence officers" two years after getting authority from Congress to fill 24 of the "critical" positions.

* Only a third of special agents and intelligence analysts have access to the Internet at their desktops. FBI personnel lack the ability to store and share images and audio files associated with intelligence investigations.

* A new weapons-of-mass-destruction directorate within the bureau is "poorly positioned to work across FBI programs that are likely to encounter WMD threats and investigations."

The report recommended that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence be required to submit semi-annual reports to Congress assessing the progress of the FBI. The committee said it also expected the FBI to "engage in a credible study" to identify why it has been unable to address "permanently the high position vacancy rates" in its national security and intelligence programs at FBI headquarters.

"It is just slow and bureaucratic. You have a lot of people trying hard. But there is a fair amount of turnover, and a lot of junior people in jobs," William C. Banks, a national security expert at Syracuse Law School, said of the FBI. "The technical problems are just legion, and they really haven't gotten better. They are inexcusable. What can you say?"

Last month, Mueller named Kevin Favreau, a 25-year FBI veteran, to head the bureau's Directorate of Intelligence.


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