Can Mueller Reform the Change-Resistant FBI?

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“It was baptism by conflagration.” So White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card described Robert Mueller’s entry as FBI director around the same time that the September 11, 2001, terror attacks were occurring. Mueller’s mandate from President Bush to prevent future terrorist attacks “will represent the most sweeping structural and philosophical shift in the FBI’s history,” U.S. News & World Report says in its cover story this week. In exclusive interviews, Mueller and his top aides detailed the steps they have begun to take. The changes, they say, mean “reorienting virtually everything about the FBI’s institutional culture and its traditional operating procedures.”

The stakes are high. “Just one more terror attack,” says Larry Mefford, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, “and we will be called a failure.”

Critics say that the FBI has been unable to penetrate the world of violent Islamic fundamentalists on its own. “As 9/11 was being planned,” says a former intelligence official, “there was not one [successful FBI] penetration in al Qaeda.”

Ultimately, the FBI will have 1,200 agents and analysts assigned to counterterrorism work; 570 are on board so far. Field offices can no longer open and close a terror investigation without notifying headquarters. More than a few agents question the wisdom of “headquarters knows best.”

Mueller’s second big change is to upgrade the bureau’s Stone Age computers. A technology buff, Mueller hired former IBM executive Wilson Lowery to direct a multimillion-dollar upgrade. The challenge, says Lowery, an avid golfer, is “like teeing off 200 yards behind Tiger Woods.” The new $596 million software package will be unveiled in December, six months behind schedule and $138 million over budget.

Busting criminals is still the FBI’s bread and butter, and busting criminals is still what the FBI is doing most. Mueller has shifted 500 agents from drug squads to counterterrorism work, and he has tripled the number of agents devoted to terrorism. But that still means only a fifth of the 11,500-agent workforce is devoted to counterterrorism. Changing any institution takes time, and the FBI has been resistant to change.


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