The FBI has had a rough couple of months with the public,
in the press, and on the Hill. Senators are even entertaining the notion of
splitting the bureau in half. But if Director Robert Mueller is seriously
concerned about the FBI's future, it's only because he's new to the job. Congress
may be in a punishing mood, but its idea of punishment would make masochists of
Over the past 10 years, with very few exceptions, Congress has
responded to FBI slipups by spanking the bureau with more money, more manpower,
and more investigative latitude -- and by resolutely refusing to address any
internal reforms the FBI might need. When the bureau's crime lab bungled its way
into a one-year backlog and dozens of mishandled cases in 1996, Congress
responded by building a shiny new $130 million facility. When the cost of
building a nationwide automated fingerprint system ran $85 million over budget in
1995, Senator Robert Byrd was ready with a "dire emergency" supplemental
appropriations bill to keep the project on target.
Even amid the crisis of confidence brought on by the bureau's pre-September 11
missteps, Congressman Frank Wolf, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee
that oversees the bureau's budget, sent an open letter to Mueller on May 24. The
missive expressed "concern" for the FBI's recent mistakes but then asked the
director "if Congress was doing enough with regard to providing the FBI with the
financial resources it needed."
Mueller should have few complaints. The bureau is set to receive its biggest,
ahem, punishment in decades, including a $1.5 billion budget increase and the
investigative latitude for agents to open preliminary investigations and maintain
them for up to a year without approval from headquarters.
Of course, some of the bureau's shortcomings do take money to fix. But it was
not for lack of money that these problems developed in the first place. Congress
in 1997 allocated $83 million to hire more than 1,000 new counterterrorism agents
and support personnel who, Congress was told, were going to focus solely on the
problem of preventing terrorism. Instead, they were more commonly assigned to
run-of-the-mill criminal investigations. Kenneth Williams, the Phoenix agent who
warned of suspicious flight-school trainees, applied his knowledge of radical
Islamic organizations to investigating a series of arsons in the Phoenix suburbs.
According to Williams's colleague, agent James Hauswirth, one of their
supervisors in the Phoenix office referred to terror prevention as "hokeypokey
Nor are the bureau's problems the result of overly restrictive investigative
techniques. The Minneapolis agents could have been granted a warrant to delve
more deeply into Zacarias Moussaoui's life if FBI headquarters had allowed them
to do so.
The fact is that the FBI's mistakes have more to do with an overabundance of
resources than a lack of them. From 1997 through 2002, the bureau added 1,000
people to its payroll, virtually all of them at headquarters, virtually none of
them field agents. During the same years, its budget grew by roughly 30 percent.
But the number of bureaucratic hurdles grew as well. By sending her memo directly
to Mueller, agent Coleen Rowley was circumventing eight different layers of
leadership. As in most bureaucracies, the bureau was more concerned with
upholding the chain of command than with increasing its effectiveness. The
Minneapolis agents investigating Moussaoui were chastised for stepping outside
bureau protocol and making direct contact with the CIA's Counterterrorism Center
(which happens to be staffed by FBI agents in order to facilitate just this kind
Mueller's reorganization plan has some very strong points, including a
rational division of responsibilities among his top deputies and a significant
shift of manpower to the counterterrorism division. Unfortunately, it does little
to shorten the distance between street agents and the director's office. In fact,
by creating new offices within the counterterrorism division, it may only create
more obstacles. Mueller has expressed frustration with the fact that eight
different people need to sign off on a memo before it sees his desk. But he's
done little to address the essential bloat that's hamstrung the FBI. Perhaps he
can't. Perhaps Congress should.
What cannot be known from a reorganization chart, though, is how Mueller will
address the cultural problems that afflict the bureau. Changing not just what the
FBI does, but how it thinks, how it perceives itself and the people and agencies
it works with, is the most difficult challenge Mueller will face.
That's especially so when not everyone agrees on what the "cultural problems"
of the bureau are. At the Senate Judiciary Committee's June 6 hearing, the
bureau's cultural problems were brought up no fewer than 28 times by the
committee members, Mueller, and Rowley. Each time the words were uttered,
however, they seemed to be referring to a distinctly different challenge.
Depending on whom you ask, the FBI's culture is either arrogant, fearful,
slothful, obsessively image-conscious, or simply too reactive.
But if the goal of all this is to shape up the bureau, it doesn't matter what
Mueller says to Congress, or what Congress says to Mueller. What matters is what
Mueller says to the FBI. So far he has said little. Mueller "is being
appropriately sensitive to the need for transition here," according to an
administration consultant familiar with the FBI. "But the line between
appropriately sensitive and not getting things accomplished -- not changing the
culture -- can be very fine."
When asked precisely what kind of cultural change Mueller is referring to, FBI
spokesman Bill Carter said, "I'll be honest with you. I don't know" -- and then
spoke about Mueller's plans to boost the bureau's preventive capabilities. FBI
Agents Association President Nancy Savage said she has yet to hear Mueller say
anything along those lines to the bureau staff, which was just fine with her. "I
personally don't think there's anything wrong with the culture that needs to be
changed," she said. "Most of us don't."
If the bureau's recent history proves anything, it's that it can't fix a
problem that its own agents don't perceive. Mueller escaped the calls for his
resignation by convincing Capitol Hill that he was serious about changing the
FBI. It's time he turned to the task of convincing the FBI.