WASHINGTON – FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley blasted the agency's bureaucracy during a congressional appearance Thursday.
The FBI lawyer's scathing testimony came after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller suggested Congress expand surveillance powers that were put into law seven months ago. Mueller also said his agency needs to be "more flexible" if it is to prevent future terrorist attacks.
In the earlier testimony, Mueller disclosed it could take two or three years — far longer than the one year he originally hoped — to bring FBI computer systems up to standards needed to sift intelligence information efficiently.
The panel met as President Bush outlined his latest plans for strengthening America's defenses against terrorism. They included creation of a new Department of Homeland Security, combining responsibilities now scattered in several federal agencies — including customs, immigration, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
At the same time, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees met in a guarded room in the Capitol to continue their own review of the events of Sept. 11. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said the session included a staff-led review of the growth of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Praised by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, as a patriot for stepping forward, Rowley told lawmakers she would not talk about the details of the case of Zacarias Moussaoui that prompted her explosive letter last month. In a 13-page memo, the FBI agent accused bureau headquarters of putting roadblocks in the way of Minneapolis field agents trying to investigate the foreign-born Moussaoui, who is charged with conspiring with the hijackers in the attacks.
Instead, her remarks focused on the frustrations of working in an "ever-growing bureaucracy" that she said led to risk aversion, make-work paperwork and so many layers of officials that effective decision-making was impeded.
"Seven to nine levels (of bureaucracy) is really ridiculous," Coleen Rowley, a lawyer in the FBI's Minneapolis office, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and a nationwide television audience.
"We have a culture in the FBI that there's a certain pecking order and it's pretty strong, and it's very rare that somebody picks up the phone and calls a rank or two above themselves," Rowley said.
Last August, FBI agents in Minnesota arrested Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, on an immigration violation after a flight school instructor became suspicious of his desire to learn to fly a commercial jet.
FBI headquarters turned down the Minneapolis' office request to seek a search warrant to examine Moussaoui's computer. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI got the warrant and found information related to jetliners and crop-dusters on the computer hard drive, officials said. The government grounded crop-dusting planes temporarily because of what it found.
In his turn in the witness chair, Mueller won praise from several senators for his efforts to reform an agency that Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., described as hidebound. "You inherited a great organization but also a great bureaucracy," added Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.
Even senators who were critical of Mueller at various points joined in the praise.
At the same time, he faced sharp questioning about the FBI's failure to alert the committee earlier this year about the so-called Phoenix memorandum, a document sent to agency headquarters last summer noting that several Arabs were suspiciously training at a U.S. aviation school in Arizona.
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., asked Mueller why the headquarters agent to whom the memo was addressed, David Frasca, had not told the Judiciary Committee about it in January when Frasca met with the panel's staff. Mueller said he did not know.
Sens. John Kyl, R-Ariz., and Schumer introduced a measure on Wednesday to make it easier for agents to obtain wiretaps and conduct searches in foreign intelligence cases, saying that if the FBI had been able to listen in on Moussaoui it might have been able to prevent the attacks.
"This is a problem, and we're looking for solutions to address this problem," Mueller replied, adding that the Justice Department would be issuing a formal opinion on the legislation in the future.
"We are looking at ways to tweak" the legislation passed by Congress late last year, he added.
Mueller had previously outlined plans to reorganize the FBI to devote greater resources to anti-terrorism, including its ability to analyze available intelligence. "This Congress is all too familiar with the FBI's analytical shortcomings," he said. "Building subject area expertise or developing an awareness of the potential value of an isolated piece of information does not occur overnight," he said. "It is developed over time."
He told one senator the agency had begun hiring additional translators skilled in Farsi, Pashto and other languages, and said the FBI now has the ability to translate intercepts "in real time" in terrorism cases.
At the same time, he told seemingly incredulous senators that computer technology at the agency didn't allow an agent to search all existing electronic reports for a key phrase — the term "flight school," for example.
Asked time after time whether Rowley's letter or the Phoenix memo could have prevented the disastrous attacks, he sidestepped.
"I'm hesitant to speculate as to what would have happened if, ..." he said at one point.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.