Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2003 / 24 Shevat, 5763

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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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 possible.

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 other things.

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 criminal cases.

"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 agents.

"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