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FBI struggles to reinvent itself as intelligence-driven agency

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FBI struggles to reinvent itself as intelligence-driven agency

Report: Next chief must focus on terrorism, not prosecutions

  • The second tower collapses at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Since the attacks, the FBI has tried to build itself into a more intelligence-driven agency.
    westera2/FlickrThe second tower collapses at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Since the attacks, the FBI has tried to build itself into a more intelligence-driven agency.

A full decade after the deadly 9/11 attacks, the FBI is still struggling to become an intelligence-driven agency able to identify and act on potential threats.

The FBI's biggest problem remains “the extent to which intelligence has been integrated into FBI operations to support its counterterrorism mission,” according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service. In typically understated CRS language, the April 27 report cloaks its critiques as suggested areas for further “congressional inquiry.”

As the lead agency for investigating the federal crime of terrorism, the FBI came under heavy criticism after 9/11, which many labeled a major failure by U.S. security, law enforcement and intelligence. In the decade since, the FBI has initiated reforms to change its focus from a law enforcement agency focused on criminal investigations to an intelligence-driven agency that can prevent terrorist attacks.

The FBI increased the numbers of its Joint Terrorism Task Forces, investigative units led by the Justice Department and the FBI which include analysts, linguists, and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) experts. In 1999, there were 26 terrorism task forces throughout the country; today there are over 100.

The FBI also has staffed up its counterterrorism operations. Before the 9/11 terror attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller estimated about 30 percent of the FBI's 10,000 agents were assigned to national security issues, and the rest focused on criminal investigations. During the past decade, the agency added 4,000 agents, half focused on terrorism. And it nearly tripled the number of FBI intelligence analysts to about 3,000 today.

But the cultural change hasn’t been smooth – and it’s not finished, the CRS report hints.

A major problem continues to be how the bureau uses its intelligence experts. “The FBI Intelligence Analysts Association has stated that analysts at the FBI continue to be relegated to ‘support roles’… They argue that intelligence analysts should have professional parity with special agents to rapidly reform the FBI’s institutional culture,” said the report.

As well, the report questions the FBI’s ability to assess complex threats and says Congress should look into whether the bureau has “developed effective predictive capacity.”

Mueller’s 10-year term as FBI director ends in September. The CRS suggests Congress grill his nominated successor about reforms "that seek to achieve an ‘intelligence driven’ organization where intelligence supports broad counterterrorism and homeland security objectives – not just investigations that lead to prosecutions.”

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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