Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Jeff Stein On FBI Intelligence Shortcomings

Jeff Stein, national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, has an outstanding article illustrating precisely why ex-CIA Deputy Director for Operations David Cohen has such a low regard for the intelligence gathering capability of the FBI.

Under The Gun (PDF file).

In the early 1990s, FBI agents assigned to the CIA's counterterrorism center began coming back to the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington with tales of a computer system that dazzled their eyes. It gave them instant, easy access to classified intelligence reports generated by the spy agency's worldwide "stations."

The FBI had nothing like that. It still doesn't, years later, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an upgrade that was supposed to allow agents and analysts to share criminal and terrorism files.

The CIA system, called Hercules, is still so highly classified years later that the CIA won't acknowledge that it exists. But several FBI officials still talk about it as if they see it in their dreams.

"It was awesome," a senior FBI official recalled, speaking only on condition of anonymity. With a single click, icons from the CIA's worldwide stations could be summoned to twinkle on the desktop. With another click, the agent could pick, say, Islamabad, and see all the overnight traffic.

Obsolete computer systems are the least of the FBI's problems in the area of intelligence.

The path to career advancement in the Bureau always was by being a Special Agent, making arrests, cop stuff.

Intelligence analysis--despite an increase in prestige post 9-11, still appears to be a dead end career-wise. Thus, up and coming FBI prospects continue to shun that career path.

Also, despite a few well-publicized terrorism cases, the FBI is falling far short in the area of convictions as a percentage of overall counter-terror cases.

Stein scores early with an anecdote that illustrates the gap in relative expertise between a top FBI intelligence official and your typical freshman international relations student at a mediocre college or university:

(L)isten to the testimony of Gary M. Bald, the FBI's top counterterrorism and counterintelligence official, in a legal deposition last year. Questioned under oath in a whistleblower lawsuit brought by an Arab-American FBI agent, Bald was asked whether he knew the difference between Sunni and Shia, the two strains of Islam at war with each other as much as with the United States.

Bald waved off the question. "You don't need subject matter expertise," he said. "The subject matter expertise is helpful, but it isn't a prerequisite. It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in the counterterrorism [program]."

In other words, he didn't know the answer: that a 1,400-year-long schism over who should lead Islam, originating in fierce succession battles after the death of Mohammed in 632 A.D., is still being played out between nuclear aspirant and Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, not to mention the armed factions battling for control of U.S.-occupied Iraq. The religious passions that drive the different branches of the Islamic world--and the fervor that leads some to violence against the West--was not on his radar screen.

After pissing off much of the Muslim world by our reckless Middle-East policies, the United States has to rely on a domestic intelligence agency of this caliber to keep us "safe" from "terror."



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