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Commission investigates FBI { April 13 2004 }

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April 13, 2004
Staff Report Portrays a Divided and Backward Pre-9/11 F.B.I.

WASHINGTON, April 13 In the years before Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was almost at war with itself over how to deal with the threat of terrorism, an investigative unit said today, describing the bureau as torn by internal strife and shackled by woefully outmoded computers.

The F.B.I. leadership, traditionally preoccupied with statistics on arrests and convictions, did not reward good work in fields like counterterrorism and counterintelligence, the investigative unit said. Indeed, those areas, which by definition generally led to fewer prosecutions, "were viewed as backwaters," the inquiry found.

And the F.B.I.'s primary computer system for managing information was "designed using 1980's technology already obsolete when installed in 1995," the inquiry said. It said that, because the agency's computers were obsolete, F.B.I. people could not communicate adequately with outsiders or with one another.

"Prior to 9/11, the F.B.I. did not have an adequate ability to know what it knew," said the staff of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. And bureau analysts "didn't know what they didn't know."

Many of the staff's conclusions, released today in a document titled "Law Enforcement, Counter-terrorism and Intelligence Collection in the United States Prior to 9/11," have been reported before, or at least hinted at.

But the document offered fresh examples of intelligence analysts bumping up against frustration within the bureaucracy. The panel staff said it had found instances of "poorly qualified administrative personnel" being promoted to positions as analysts as rewards. Meanwhile, those analysts who were truly well qualified were often diverted to ordinary criminal cases, or even treated as "uber-secretaries," reduced to answering the telephones.

One section of the report seemed, at first glance, to be open to discussion. The report states that the F.B.I. deliberately decentralized its management "to empower the individual field offices and agents on the street."

Yet Coleen Rowley, an agent in Minneapolis, created an uproar in 2002 when she revealed that in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks bureau supervisors in Washington blocked Minneapolis agents who wanted authority for a broader investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has since been indicted as a conspirator in the attacks.

The release of the document coincided with an especially important day in the work of the panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, and for President Bush.

The panel heard former F.B.I. Director Louis J. Freeh and former Attorney General Janet Reno today. Later today, it was to hear testimony from Attorney General John Ashcroft. Tonight, President Bush will hold a news conference in the White House, and he is sure to be questioned about the commission hearings.

Mr. Freeh, F.B.I. director from September 1993 to June 2001, told the commission today that he and the F.B.I. did everything possible to address the peril of terrorism, given the resources at his command. But he faced tough questioning from members of the commission, whose chairman is former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, a Republican. The co-chairman is former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana.

Mr. Freeh is well known for his personal aversion to computers, although the staff report did not pursue whether those feelings permeated the F.B.I. culture and helped to put the bureau on a slow track in the age of instant information. And perhaps it should be pointed out that the F.B.I. is not the only agency with outmoded computers; the Internal Revenue Service, for example, is another that is acknowledged to be way behind in technology.

A spokesman for Mr. Ashcroft has already offered a defense of the attorney general, asserting that neither the F.B.I. nor the Central Intelligence Agency made sufficiently clear before the Sept. 11 attacks that terrorists might strike within the United States, instead of overseas.

Like previous reports issued by the commission staff, the one released today told a story of bureaucratic choices that seem, in retrospect at least, to have been questionable. And despite the deliberately understated language, it stirred haunting questions of what might have been.

The commission staff said it was ready to revise its conclusions, if warranted. And it noted that the F.B.I. had several "success stories" on its record, including the arrests and convictions of the men who carried out the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993.

Nevertheless, the commission staff said, it found an F.B.I. culture in which agents built information in support of their own cases, not as part of a broader, strategic effort. "Given the poor state of the F.B.I.'s information systems, field agents usually did not know what investigations agents in their own office, let alone in other field offices, were working on," the staff said.

Because of this balkanized culture and a reluctance, or inability, to share information, "it was almost impossible to develop an understanding of the threat from a particular international terrorist group, the staff said.

While the F.B.I. created a Counterterrorism Center and made other organization changes in the 1990's, including the creation of a unit focused solely on Osama bin Laden, it was still hampered by two "fundamental challenges," the staff said.

One was the bureau's existing agenda, which regarded illegal drugs, white-collar crime, organized crime and other more traditional areas as its real mission. The other was "a legal issue that became a management challenge as well," namely the "wall" between intelligence-gathering and criminal prosecutions, a barrier that has yet to be negotiated.

Mr. Freeh has said that before Sept. 11, 2001, the American people, and consequently their politicians, lacked the collective will to go after terrorists. He suggested that, if law enforcement agencies put a higher priority on, say, drug-related crimes, they were reflecting the people's priorities.

Some findings in the staff report may remain open to interpretation. For instance, former Attorney General Reno, interviewed by the staff before today's testimony, said that Mr. Freeh "seemed unwilling to shift resources to terrorism from other areas such as violent crime."

But Mr. Freeh told the staff that he remembered "begging and screaming" for money to improve the F.B.I.'s information technology, although it is by no means clear that he had counter-terrorism entirely in mind. And the commission staff said that only three days of the 16-week course for new F.B.I. agents were devoted to national security issues, including counterterrorism.

The staff report recalls that, on May 9, 2001, Mr. Ashcroft testified at a hearing that the Justice Department had no higher priority than protecting American citizens from terrorist attacks. Yet, the report notes, Mr. Ashcroft later rejected a request from Acting F.B.I. Director Thomas Pickard, who took over from Mr. Freeh in 2001, for more money in the budget for "counterterrorism enhancements."

Mr. Ashcroft made that decision on Sept. 10, 2001. As of the morning of the next day, only about 1,300 agents, or 6 percent of the F.B.I.'s people, were assigned to counterterrorism.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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