At FBI, Help Is Most Wanted

Key players are fleeing for the private sector and other agencies in droves, even as the bureau struggles to meet post-9/11 standards.

By Richard B. Schmitt

Los Angeles Times

6:52 PM PST, December 12, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The rapid turnover of top-level managers and highly trained specialists since Sept. 11, 2001, is causing disorder within the FBI and undercutting its efforts to meet the mandate of Congress to expand its intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities dramatically.

Its new intelligence arm, which is to form the core of a transformed FBI, is losing dozens of analysts who are supposed to connect the dots to protect the country from another terrorist attack.

All four members of the top management team announced by director Robert S. Mueller III shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks have left their jobs -- as have their successors. Some other officials have had three or even four jobs since the attacks.

Since Sept. 11, five people have held the bureau's top counterterrorism job. Five others filled the top computer job within a 24-month period. And more than 1,000 other senior FBI agents and officials are now eligible for retirement, boding a further exodus of employees who form the agency's backbone. In figures provided recently to Congress, the FBI estimated that the number of top managers below the senior-executive rank will decline by 16 percent -- about 70 people -- in the next year alone.

The rush to the exits partly stems from burnout caused by the intense pace and scrutiny that followed Sept. 11, officials say. It also reflects the growing post-9/11 demand for security expertise in other fields, leading to the departure of dozens of FBI officials for more lucrative jobs.

One example: The head of the Los Angeles FBI field office left in January to become California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's head of homeland security, only to leave six months later for Walt Disney Co.

It also illustrates how the FBI, like many bureaucracies, is a graying institution. A surge of hiring in the 1970s, and the bureau's liberal retirement rules, are being felt at an inauspicious time.

Many of the analysts are leaving for other parts of the U.S. intelligence community - wooed by fellow agencies like the CIA at a time when, in the view of groups such as the Sept. 11 Commission, they should be cooperating with each other more than ever.

Indeed, until very recently, the FBI was losing nearly as many analysts to attrition and other causes as it had managed to hire with the post-Sept. 11 infusion of cash from Congress.

The turnover has led to a little-noted provision in the 2005 spending bill that President Bush signed Wednesday. It authorizes Mueller to offer unusually fat retention bonuses to key employees who might be threatening to leave.

Another provision authorizes Mueller to increase the bureau's mandatory retirement age to 65 in select cases, and to establish a "reserve service" of retirees who could be called back to work in an emergency without jeopardizing their pensions.

"The FBI is having difficulty retaining certain staff in critical senior management positions, and other specialized positions," acknowledged a senior official, requesting anonymity. "Look at the counterterrorism positions. You are lucky to get a year out of them."

Mueller, who was unavailable to comment for this article, has told Congress he is losing "some very good, competent people" because he cannot afford to compete with private sector salaries.

"But we've also lost them to CIA. We've lost them to (the Defense Intelligence Agency). We've lost them to Homeland Security," he told a House appropriations subcommittee.

A costly and long-delayed overhaul of the agency's creaky computer system has been linked to the turnover.

A Government Accountability Office report earlier this year that was critical of the upgrade efforts noted that the bureau had had five chief information officers in the preceding 24 months, and said that lack of "sustained management attention and leadership" had contributed to cost overruns and delays.

"I compare it to a professional football team that has five different head coaches in 24 months. There is not going to be much stability and focused consistent direction to the team," said Randolph Hite, a GAO information-technology specialist.

But the latest director has been in place for a year, which Hite said is a good sign.

The outflow of analysts -- considered crucial to the bureau's attempt to create an intelligence service that focuses on preventing terror attacks rather than solving crimes -- is especially worrisome.

The analysts specialize in sifting though intelligence information gathered from many sources and interpreting it to identify potential terrorism threats.

FBI documents provided to Congress show that between Sept. 11 and last March, the bureau had hired 487 analysts. But the gains were largely offset because 361 analysts left for other jobs, either within the bureau or elsewhere.

This year, the bureau had planned on hiring 900 additional analysts, but officials appear to have scaled back their plans, in part because of the high attrition. Officials implied at a recent congressional hearing that they may add as few as 600.

In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the FBI has hired 624 new analysts, with "much fewer than 100" separations and departures, a spokeswoman said.

Recently, in an attempt to boost recruiting, the bureau dropped a requirement that candidates have a college degree. The bureau said that allows it to hire qualified people who may have specialized skills but not necessarily a formal education.

"The FBI is training these analysts so they can go elsewhere," said a person familiar with the hiring effort who requested anonymity. Other agencies and private firms are "poaching like crazy. They train these guys and they are skimmed off." The result, the source said, is that "there has not been a significant inflow of analysts relative to the numbers they've said they want to get."

Advancement opportunities and the stature of analysts in the FBI are limited compared with their counterparts at spy agencies like the CIA. Most importantly, the FBI traditionally hasn't paid as well.

"Until recently analyst positions at the FBI were viewed as pretty second-rate. If you were anybody who was anybody at the FBI you were a special agent," said a congressional investigator familiar with the problem. "Analysts do not have the same cachet."

But it has been at the FBI's highest levels where the turnover has been starkest.

Some of the most sensitive top management posts are held by relative newcomers. Among others, the heads of finance, administration, criminal investigations and internal inspections have been in their jobs for less than a year. The bureau's office of strategic planning has been without a director for months.

The FBI argues that in some cases the personnel shifting is healthy in giving people a breadth of experience and bringing a fresh eye to problems. But some observers are concerned that the managers do not have time enough to learn their job before being moved on to their next assignment.

"Every time you call headquarters a different guy at the desk would answer the phone. You would have to start everything all over again," said a former terrorism investigator.

"It is not just at that top level. It is at every level. Everybody is kind of in a state of flux all the time."

The turnover has been especially acute in the terrorism arena, where the bureau has run through a long line of distinguished executives in just three years. Two -- Dale Watson and Larry Mefford -- had each been with the FBI since 1979, and left to take jobs in the private sector.

Each departure in the agency triggers a chain reaction. Bruce Gebhardt, the bureau's deputy director, left in October for the MGM Mirage. He was replaced by John Pistole, who had been the fourth counterterrorism boss since Sept. 11 and whose promotion opened the door for the fifth.

"I grew up in the FBI, and I am a flag-waver, but it takes a toll on you," said Gebhardt, a 30-year veteran whose father was a longtime FBI man.

Other FBI executives have left in recent years for employers as diverse as the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and the Catholic church.

Like other federal agencies, the FBI has offered bonuses to senior executives before. But the new bonuses are more lucrative -- up to 50 percent of base pay -- and appear to be available to a much wider circle of employees. According to the newly enacted legislation, they would be available to employees of "unusually high or unique qualifications" who are deemed by Mueller to be "essential" and are likely to leave without the incentive.