WASHINGTON – Few agencies came in for more criticism than the FBI for missteps before the Sept. 11 attacks, but now the bureau is getting good reviews for reforms undertaken by Director Robert Mueller (search).
The Sept. 11 commission (search) said Mueller is doing what is necessary to address the problems that may have prevented detection of the hijacking plot.
"We think he's doing exactly the right thing," said Thomas Kean (search), commission chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey.
In a major victory for the FBI (search) and Justice Department, the commission came down firmly against creation of a new, separate domestic intelligence agency and opted instead to send a "stay the course" message of support for Mueller.
The strong backing for the FBI was surprising, considering the criticism the bureau endured after the attacks. Of the 10 missed "operational opportunities" identified by the commission to potentially disrupt the plot, at least three fell squarely on the FBI.
They include not recognizing that flight student Zacarias Moussaoui (search) in Minnesota might be connected to intelligence indicating an Al Qaeda plot involving hijackers and not quickly locating two soon-to-be hijackers the government knew were in the United States.
In addition, the commission said the FBI suffered from a broader inability to "link its collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities."
"It is mystifying that the commissioners didn't take this on," said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former Justice Department counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration. "Mueller has been responsive to the things they were interested in. He has managed to finesse the situation."
Since the attacks, Mueller has made counterterrorism the FBI's paramount mission. He has put in place several initiatives to strengthen the FBI's intelligence capabilities and methods of sharing information, both internally and with other government agencies.
More than 1,450 FBI personnel now work on intelligence in the 56 FBI field offices. Also, there is a new FBI intelligence service and an aggressive program to hire more intelligence analysts.
After last week's release of the Sept. 11 report, Mueller said he was "gratified and encouraged" by the support. "I am confident that we will successfully complete our transformation," he said.
The report said it would be a mistake to create a new domestic agency for intelligence similar to the British Security Service, known as MI5. Such an agency, the commission concluded, could be more likely to violate constitutional rights and civil liberties, would take years to put into place and would lack law enforcement powers needed to turn terrorism investigations into criminal prosecutions.
Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft and their predecessors in the Clinton administration all opposed creation of a domestic intelligence service, in part because it would simply duplicate FBI work.
The idea of a separate intelligence agency was pushed for months by Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic candidate for vice president. His running mate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, chose not to endorse the proposal.
The commission warned that the FBI must not be allowed to revert to its old ways: closely holding intelligence for use in criminal prosecutions and rewarding agents more for making arrests than keeping tabs on suspected terrorists.
"The new way of doing business has to be more than on paper," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Operations from headquarters to the field must continue to transform so terrorist attacks are prevented, not just investigated after the fact."
The commission said some FBI changes should carry the weight of a presidential directive or a law passed by Congress.
In addition, the commission's proposed new direction of national intelligence, based at the White House, would have approval authority over the FBI's top intelligence official and also have some control over that piece of the FBI's budget. Overall, however, the Justice Department led by the attorney general would remain in charge of the FBI.
Congress is already moving on some of these proposals. The spending bill that includes the FBI, passed by the House on July 8 and pending in the Senate, would provide $100 million above President Bush's request for more than 1,200 new FBI agents, analysts and other staff.
In addition, the measure orders the FBI to follow through on Mueller's proposal to require that all senior managers have intelligence training. The bill gives the FBI $10 million more than Bush's request for intelligence and counterterrorism training.