The problem the FBI still hasn't fixed.

Military analysis.
May 30 2002 12:31 PM

FBI CYA

The problem the Bureau still hasn't fixed.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The post-9/11 reorganization plan the FBI announced yesterday may indeed remedy some of the shortcomings that enabled the WTC/Pentagon plotters to succeed. Some 500 agents will be reassigned to anti-terrorism duty, computers will be upgraded, and special counterterror response "flying squads" and a new intelligence office will be formed. But these reforms don't address the FBI's historically biggest weakness: its obsession with its own image.

Since both the flying squads and the intel office will be based in Washington, D.C., the new changes only further consolidate FBI HQ's control over counterterrorism efforts. In her j'accuse memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, longtime FBI agent and attorney Coleen Rowley anticipates this key flaw: "The Phoenix, Minneapolis and Paris Legal Attache Offices reacted remarkably, exhibiting keen perception and prioritization skills regarding the terrorist threats they uncovered or were made aware of pre-September 11th. The same cannot be said for the FBI Headquarters' bureaucracy and you want to expand that?!"

Rowley lays out some perceptive reasons why centralization has been bad for the FBI: 1) Overseeing aggressive operations that don't pan out (as for example, at Ruby Ridge and Waco) has usually been career-ending, so FBI managers tend to avoid all "unnecessary" decisions. 2) Headquarters is dominated by managers, many of them failed street agents, on 18-month ticket-punching tours too short for them to master the details and trends in the areas they supervise. But Rowley doesn't note another aspect of the Bureau's overcentralization, one that's caused it to blow many big cases over the years: It's fostered by the Bureau's obsession with its image, because relentless image control requires a strong central hand. And if making sure the FBI comes out looking good is job No. 1, then truly effective law enforcement—which would require openly admitting mistakes and working with other agencies—is not.

The cult of appearances at the FBI was originated, of course, by founding Director J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the show for 48 years. It was Hoover who promulgated the notion that all FBI agents were either lawyers or accountants at a time when only a small percentage of them were; it was he who came in to make highly publicized personal "arrests" of big-time gangsters already surrounded by street agents (Public Enemy No. 1 Alvin Karpas) or delivered by a reporter (Lepke Buchhalter, the head of Murder Inc., served up by Walter Winchell). It was he who responded to press criticisms about a dearth of black agents by instantly dubbing his chauffeur one. And it was Hoover who expressed his awareness of the FBI's failure to properly monitor Lee Harvey Oswald upon his return from Russia, not in his public testimony before the Warren Commission, but only in scribbled comments on the margins of a secret FBI memo. Hoover censured or put on probation more than a dozen agents for Oswald-related failures—but without ever publicly acknowledging this.

It's striking how strongly this legacy has endured in the three decades since Hoover's death in office. When things go wrong, the Bureau's instinct is still the same—to misplace blame and refuse help from other agencies. To wit:

  • When one of the FBI's own scientists, Frederic Whitehurst, complained about quality control problems in the Bureau's crime lab—later verified by the Justice Department—problems that jeopardized hundreds of prosecutions, the Bureau reacted not by adopting the reforms Whitehurst suggested, but by suspending and then transferring him.

  • During the Waco standoff, senior FBI officials ignored the warnings issued by the Bureau's own behavioral specialists that David Koresh posed a serious suicide risk and didn't consult with outside experts on cults.

  • When the FBI investigated the Oklahoma City bombing, it excluded other agencies, including bomb experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, both at the blast site and when it raided a farm where it was believed Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols built practice bombs.

  • After the bombing at Atlanta's Summer Olympics, the FBI once again stiffed the ATF. This time it shipped all the evidence to its own problem-riddled lab, ignoring the ATF's lab right in Atlanta, which had solved a similar high-profile bombing case. And the Bureau used press leaks to wrongly finger security guard Richard Jewell as the prime suspect. So grudging was the FBI's admission that it had goofed on Jewell that it waited months to develop the evidence in the backpack the real bomber left behind and to release a tape to the public of the anonymous 911 call warning about the bomb before it went off. The case is still open. Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh later endorsed a Justice Department report finding that field agents in the case "made a major error in judgment"—even though it was Freeh who personally ordered that Jewell be read his Miranda rights when he came in voluntarily for an interview.

  • In the FBI's investigation of the possible theft of nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos lab, agents mistakenly focused entirely on Wen Ho Lee, thereby ignoring many other leads. It probably didn't help that even though, according to a Justice Department report, the Bureau didn't have analysts of its own with enough knowledge of weaponry and computers, it didn't reach out to competent outside experts. Nevertheless, Lee was arrested on espionage charges and was denied bail based in large part on assurances made by Freeh and other agents about the solidity of the case.

  • Even after the capture of CIA traitor Aldrich Ames in 1994, the Bureau failed to adopt the CIA's practice of regular mandatory polygraph tests for agents. And despite some troubling evidence that one of the FBI's own, Robert Hanssen, was spying for the Soviet Union and Russia, the Bureau mistakenly ignored him and focused instead on a CIA officer.

This egregious track record will not be improved upon in the terrorism sphere simply by moving some agents around and creating some new places to move them to. Some of the right heads have to roll, too. And this means the FBI's near-ancient commitment to damage control has got to go. In Hoover's FBI, or Freeh's, the supervisors at HQ who ignored or downplayed warnings from the field about radical Arab hijackers might get quiet rebukes, but they would stay in place (and might even get bonuses) where they would continue to threaten public safety. And whistle-blowers like Rowley would probably get squeezed out, or punished, or at the very least never get promoted again.

There is exactly one way the Bureau can show now that it has really changed—by firing those supervisors, promoting Rowley, and calling for a public independent investigation of its counterterror foul-ups.

Scott Shuger is a Slate senior writer who spent five years in the U.S. Navy and served overseas as an intelligence officer.