Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2003 / 24 Shevat, 5763
The world's mediocre intelligence agency
The FBI often has been described as the world's finest law enforcement
agency, which it well may be. But the FBI has proven to be, at best, a
mediocre intelligence agency, mostly because it is a law enforcement agency.
An idea gaining some currency in Washington is to create a new domestic
intelligence agency, an American counterpart to Britain's MI-5. One
announced Democratic candidate for president, Sen. John Edwards of North
Carolina, and another potential candidate, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, have
expressed support for the concept.
The strongest case for an American MI-5 was made by Sen. Richard Shelby
(R-Ala), in the additional views he filed to the report of the Joint
Committee which investigated the intelligence failures that made Sept. 11
The failures of the FBI to examine the computer of Zacarious Moussaoui, or
to act upon the recommendations in the Phoenix memo have been widely
publicized. Had both been handled properly, it is all but certain the
hijackers' plot would have been foiled.
The FBI also botched the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, suspected of selling
U.S. nuclear secrets to the Chinese, and an investigation into Chinese
influence-buying in the 1996 elections. The investigation into the anthrax
attacks of the fall of 2001 appears to be going nowhere.
Shelby documents that the FBI had had since 1996 credible information that
Muslim extremists were planning to crash airplanes into buildings, and that
members of al Qaida were attending flight schools in the United States
(Osama bin Laden's personal pilot trained at a flight school in Norman,
Oklahoma). But, Shelby said, the FBI "didn't know what it knew."
Part of the problem is political correctness run wild. Guidelines imposed by
Attorney General Janet Reno in 1995 forbade FBI intelligence analysts from
sharing information with FBI agents working on criminal cases, and vice
versa. Timid attorneys at FBI headquarters imposed upon agents in
Minneapolis and elsewhere more stringent restrictions than were required by
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), legislation drafted on the
assumption that U.S. intelligence agencies are a greater threat than foreign
terrorists to the liberties of Americans.
Part of the problem is a wholly inadequate computer system, little changed
from the early 1980s. Louis Freeh, FBI director during the Clinton
administration, tended to spend money appropriated for computer upgrades on
Part of the problem is that the CIA has not shared important information
with other agencies. The CIA never bothered to tell the FBI that two al
Qaida operatives had taken up residence in San Diego and were attending a
flight school there. The FBI didn't learn about Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf
al-Hazmi until shortly before they crashed an airliner into the Pentagon.
But the larger part of the problem is that the FBI is organized to solve
"The tyranny of the case file presents a fundamental obstacle to national
security work, for the simple reason that law enforcement organizations
handle information, reach conclusions, and ultimately just think differently
than intelligence organizations," Shelby said.
Because of its focus on solving individual cases, the FBI often doesn't look
at the big picture. Because of its decentralized structure - ideal for
solving criminal cases - relevant information from which to draw the big
picture isn't shared widely within the FBI, much less with other agencies.
Because you get ahead in the FBI by solving criminal cases, intelligence
functions are often starved for resources, and don't attract the best
"Being able to know what one knows is the fundamental prerequisite for any
organization that seeks to undertake even the most rudimentary intelligence
analysis," Shelby said. "The FBI...has repeatedly shown it is unable to do
this. It does not know what it knows, it has enormous difficulty analyzing
information when it can find it, and it refuses to disseminate whatever
analytical products its analysts...might happen to produce."
A new agency, composed of intelligence professionals, freed of the FBI's
legal restrictions and bureaucracy, and organized to collect, analyze and
disseminate information to law enforcement agencies almost certainly would
do a better job. It would be hard to do a worse one.
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© 2002, Jack Kelly