WASHINGTON – The FBI "has many miles to travel" in its attempt to remake itself as a topflight counterterrorism agency and the outcome is in doubt, according to a presidential commission.
Intelligence operations are not structured to ensure that information is shared within the FBI, the panel said in a report issued Thursday.
It also warned of potentially ominous consequences of ongoing turf battles and lack of cooperation between the CIA and FBI on terrorism cases that shift from overseas to American soil.
"The failure of CIA and FBI to cooperate and share information adequately on such cases could potentially create a gap in the coverage of these threats, like the one the September 11 attack plotters were able to exploit," the commission said.
The latest report on U.S. intelligence failures (search) was gloomier than its predecessors about the FBI's prospects for remaking itself following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Last year's report from the Sept. 11 commission (search) said FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) was doing what was necessary to address problems that may have prevented detection of the Sept. 11 plot. "We think he's doing exactly the right thing," Thomas Kean, the commission chairman, said at the time.
The new report raised questions about the direction Mueller is taking, and it recommended overhauling the intelligence set-up that has been in place barely a year. "In our view, the FBI has not constructed its intelligence program in a way that will promote integrated intelligence efforts, and its ambitions have led it into unnecessary new turf battles with the CIA," the panel said.
It even criticized one of the bureau's self-described success stories, its interviews of recent Iraqi immigrants that produced useful information for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The undertaking involved "countless FBI investigators and many months" and sparked civil liberties complaints, the commission said.
FBI officials refused to comment on the report beyond a brief statement. "We are pleased that the Commission recognized that we have made progress, and we agree with its judgment that we have more work to do," the statement said.
Since the attacks, Mueller has made counterterrorism the FBI's paramount mission, establishing a new Directorate of Intelligence, vastly increasing the number of intelligence analysts, and placing them throughout FBI headquarters and field offices.
Yet the FBI remains a crime-fighting agency in many respects, the panel said. Field offices put law enforcement ahead of intelligence-gathering because, as one agent told the commission, "Bin Laden is never going to Des Moines."
Though there are more analysts than ever, the FBI still tends to treat them as second-class citizens, the panel said. It identified one instance in which they were given clerical tasks unimaginable for an FBI agent to help clear up a backlog.
Analysts also spend most of their time providing tactical support to individual cases, the report said. "The Bureau has largely been unable to carve out time for its analysts in the field to do long-term, strategic analysis," it said.
The panel said those problems raised an overarching question: whether the FBI's latest effort to build an intelligence capability can overcome the resistance that scuttled past reforms. "In our view, the effort this time is more determined, but the outcome is still in doubt," it said.
The commission joined with the Sept. 11 panel in rejecting an independent domestic intelligence agency, the U.S.-equivalent of Britain's MI-5. But it said that view might have to be reconsidered "should there be a continued failure to institute the reforms necessary to transform the FBI into the intelligence organization it must become."