“The Most Dangerous Institution”


By 1982 terrorism had emerged as a prominent focus of Bureau attention, and with it came a renewal of intelligence operations. The FBI prevented a reported 131 terrorist attacks between 1981 and 2000. It foiled a 1999 plot to blow up a Sacramento gas tank that could have killed 12,000 people. It helped to stymie a wave of planned millennium terror attacks on the West Coast. It solved the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in a matter of weeks and pursued the case to successful convictions, heading off additional attacks in the process. The perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing two years later was also quickly apprehended, but the incident further emphasized the need for effective preventive intelligence. In the meantime the CIA was chagrined by the discovery of the double agent Aldrich Ames, and in 1994 President Clinton gave the FBI more counterintelligence responsibility, making it the lead agency for combating terror and crime worldwide. The Bureau began to expand its presence overseas; by last year it operated 44 offices in foreign countries.

In 1994 the Bureau’s director, Louis Freeh, warned that the nation needed to exercise “constant vigilance” against terrorism. Two years later Congress chimed in by authorizing the Attorney General to investigate U.S. citizens suspected of supporting terrorist groups. It also lifted restrictions that had forbidden the FBI to spy on a citizen solely because he or she had taken actions protected by the First Amendment. The Bureau began for the first time to feed intelligence data into the National Crime Information Center system, which had been limited to criminal records.

In 1996 the FBI set up a counterterrorism center to coordinate the efforts of analysts from 16 agencies and local police forces, and the number of agents assigned to intelligence grew from 224 in 1992 to 1,025 by the end of the decade. In 2000 counterintelligence and the fight against terrorism were designated the Bureau’s top priorities.

The stepped-up intelligence effort required a difficult adjustment in FBI culture. Law enforcement had always been the path by which agents advanced. Solving cases led to promotion, while poring over scholarly journals and foreign newspapers, the legwork of intelligence gathering, was nobody’s dream of glory. Data analysis was a long-standing FBI weakness. Moreover, now the Bureau had to work closely with other agencies, something it had traditionally resisted. ”... No one institution is strong enough to tackle the challenge of terrorism alone,” Director Mueller emphasized. “Law enforcement, quite simply, is only as good as its relationships.”

Last fall’s terrorist attacks have given both focus and urgency to Mueller’s mission to overhaul the agency he heads.

If inappropriate domestic spying had earlier been the principal complaint against the Bureau, mismanagement became the dominant charge during the 1990s. In 1993 the FBI failed to resolve a confrontation with religious fanatics in Waco, Texas, and the standoff ended in the incineration of 80 people, 25 of them children. The “shoot on sight” order issued during the siege of a militant’s home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 had also cost innocent lives. However, the Bureau did learn from these incidents, and it handled a 1996 Montana showdown involving the group that called itself the Freemen with patient and ultimately successful restraint.

During the same period even the Bureau’s vaunted crime lab suffered from mismanagement. The spy Robert Hanssen was revealed to have operated undetected within the Bureau’s own counterintelligence section for 21 years. And the handling of the case of the atomic scientist and onetime suspected spy Wen Ho Lee “embarrassed this entire nation,” a district court judge said.

Critics noted that part of the problem lay in the ever-widening scope of FBI responsibility. Some enforcement efforts are by nature federal; they include corruption among government officials; civil rights violations; and national or international crime conspiracies. But Congress may have turned to the FBI for solutions too many times. It made car-jacking a federal crime. Telemarketing fraud, child pornography, and money laundering were added to its list, as was economic espionage. Parents who neglected to pay child support became FBI targets. Drug trafficking grew to account for nearly 26 percent of the Bureau’s convictions by 1998 and as many as 80 percent in some districts.

Last fall’s terrorist attacks have prompted Director Mueller to take another look at some of these duties. Agents have been shifted from drug enforcement, white-collar fraud, and violent crime to the anti-terror beat. Even bank robbery, long a source of Bureau glory, may in some cases be left to local police.

The crisis has given both focus and urgency to Mueller’s mission to overhaul the agency he heads. Some reforms address long-standing weaknesses: He has proposed new sections devoted to cybercrime and to the Bureau’s own internal security. An Office of Law Enforcement Coordination will help the FBI better mesh with local police. Bringing the Bureau’s computers up to speed has become a priority.

In May, Mueller announced a further reorganization that he asserted will result in a “redesigned and refocused FBI.” A Justice Department official described the shifts as “turning the ship 180 degrees from prosecution of crimes as our main focus to the prevention of terrorist acts.” At the same time, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he was loosening restrictions on FBI investigations, thereby broadening the Bureau’s ability to conduct domestic intelligence surveillance unrelated to criminal activity.