FBI Told It Has 'Long Way to Go'

The presidential panel suggests the bureau yield some control to the intelligence czar.

By Richard A. Serrano

Los Angeles Times

April 1, 2005

WASHINGTON — The special presidential commission on intelligence saved some of its sharpest criticism for the FBI, accusing the bureau of picking turf fights with the CIA and urging that its recently expanded counterintelligence arm be made accountable to the new director of national intelligence.

If carried out, it would mark the first time that the FBI had yielded control of any of its operatives to an outsider, and resistance was expected from the bureau.

The commission urged President Bush to create a National Security Service at the FBI that would unite the bureau's counterintelligence and counterterrorism divisions and make them accountable to the newly constituted intelligence czar, expected to be former diplomat and U.N. Ambassador John D. Negroponte.

The recommendation, a cornerstone of the panel's yearlong review of intelligence shortcomings leading up to the war in Iraq, would force the bureau to share its work with the CIA and other government agencies. In addition, the FBI's intelligence work would be subject to the coordination and budget priorities of the new intelligence director.

"The FBI is one of the proudest and most independent agencies in the United States government," the panel said. "It is on its way to becoming an effective intelligence agency, but it will never arrive if it insists on using only its own map."

The bureau released a brief statement on the recommendations, saying that it agreed with the commission's "judgment that we have more work to do." But it did not address any of the specific recommendations.

An FBI official involved in counterterrorism and counterintelligence said the bureau had been expecting a critical report for months, and that for the most, part agents and senior administrators were not surprised at its findings or proposed reforms.

"There wasn't a lot of grumbling or yelling in the hallways here," said the FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Instead, he said, bureau officials were reserving judgment — and comment — until they had a chance to read the report and think through how the proposed reforms would fit in with the FBI's overhaul of its intelligence-gathering effort.

Other post-Sept. 11 studies of the nation's intelligence apparatus have urged greater sharing of intelligence across agencies, and the FBI and CIA have claimed that internal reorganizations have yielded major improvements on that score.

But the commission said the FBI had "a long way to go, and significant hurdles still remain." The commission added that the bureau's "ambitions have led it into unnecessary new turf battles with the CIA."

In December, for instance, the FBI began talking to the CIA about rewriting ground rules for which agency would collect what kind of information in the U.S. and overseas.

At the CIA, the FBI was seen as trying to move in on some of the agency's responsibilities, especially in foreign intelligence gathering in the United States. It came at a time when the CIA was worried about its diminished standing and when the Pentagon was trying to increase its military intelligence collections abroad.

Laurence H. Silberman, co-chairman of the commission, said that the establishment of a director of national intelligence provided a "unique opportunity" to bring all intelligence collection efforts under one umbrella.

"Real improvements can be made," he said.

"Our report," Silberman said, "seeks to enhance that cooperation, and seeks to modify significantly the way the bureau is structured and organized to enhance that cooperation."

Apparently anticipating FBI resistance, the former federal judge added: "Now, as a long-term observer of the bureau, I recognize that the bureau has its own strong views about the way the world should be organized. But after all, in the last analysis, this will be up to the president."

The FBI, born nearly a century ago, has prided itself on going its own way here and abroad. It has always had a counterintelligence division, and it elevated counterterrorism to the division level in the late 1990s.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, it created a separate intelligence division, and late last year made it a higher priority by establishing a director of intelligence answering to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. The intelligence director is Maureen Baginski, a former senior official at the National Security Agency.

The panel said the FBI had no firm hold over its expanded intelligence collection efforts. Instead, each of the bureau's 56 field intelligence groups worked separately, with only the two highest-ranking FBI officials in Washington having an understanding of their missions.

The panel said a National Security Service within the FBI would help bring those individual efforts together, and that having outside oversight would end the turf war between the FBI and the CIA.

Thursday's recommendations attracted the attention of civil liberties organizations, which warned that they could turn FBI agents into domestic spies.

"This would take a substantial portion of the FBI, the national police force, and move it under the intelligence czar," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a Washington civil liberties advocacy group. "It would operate in secrecy, and that would transform the FBI into a domestic spy agency."

But the panel, in its final report for the White House, said that "as the events of Sept. 11 demonstrated, we cannot afford a wall that divides U.S. intelligence efforts at the border."

The panel criticized the FBI for a "bureaucratic culture that naturally resists change." It noted that similar reform proposals failed in 1998 and 1999 "as a result from the FBI's operational divisions."

Even after Sept. 11, panel members found one FBI special agent-in-charge who said the bureau considered helping local police to be one of its key functions, explaining that "you never want to say no."

Another agent told the commission that law enforcement is more important than trying to find terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden, because "bin Laden is never going to Des Moines."