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FBI Plagued by Personnel, Technical Problems as It Seeks Overhaul

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the top U.S. anticrime agency, has been drafted by President Bush into the war on terror. But the change has been hard for the FBI.

At a panel convened by members of the now-defunct 9/11 Commission, Chitra Ragavan, a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report and longtime FBI watcher, said the agency is finding it painfully difficult to shift its emphasis from crimebusting to counterterrorism.

"Clearly the 9/11 attacks and President Bush's mandate to prevent terrorist attacks rather than just be a crime-solving agency has created something of a battle for the soul of the FBI," said Ms. Ragavan. "And it's very unclear at this point who's going to win. Trying to get FBI agents to think like spies is turning out to be a much more difficult task than [FBI] Director [Robert] Mueller even anticipated."

The 9/11 Commission, which probed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, went out of business with its final report last August. But, in an unusual move, panel members promised to follow through on monitoring its recommendations, and the commission reconstituted itself with private funding as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project. Monday's meeting, chaired by former commission member Jamie Gorelick, focused on FBI and CIA reform. Changing the FBI dominated the dialogue.

The 9/11 Commission had considered a recommendation that domestic intelligence be taken away from the FBI and given to a new domestic intelligence agency. That idea was discarded after an impassioned plea from FBI Director Robert Mueller to allow his agency to keep that function.

But prodding the bureau to shift its focus has proved problematic, panelists said. They said counterterrorism is considered a career dead end at the FBI, making it difficult to hold onto people. According to reports, the counterterrorism division has 200 jobs unfilled, and has had six chiefs in four years. The FBI has lost nearly as many intelligence analysts as it has hired since 2001.

John Gannon, former CIA deputy director for intelligence and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, says the FBI does not have the same institutionalized respect for analysts as does the CIA.

"I still continue to believe that within FBI, if you're not an agent, you are furniture," he said. "And as long as that ethos is there, then I think we will continue to have this problem."

But former attorney general Richard Thornburgh says the large number of new FBI employees may be a blessing in disguise, as they are not wedded to the old ways of FBI thinking.

"One of things that may be positive in an ironic way is that as of today, 50 percent of the field agents in the FBI have been on the job less than five years," explained Mr. Thornburgh. "So there's been a chance to inculcate new culture, new values, new directions, in these younger, less experienced agents, if you will, to accommodate to this change."

The FBI has also suffered from an embarrassing collapse of its proposed new computer system, called Virtual Case File. The $170 million system was designed to speed up information-sharing and replace the bureau's outdated paper files. After two years in development, the system was scrapped in March by Director Mueller after it was found to be plagued with problems and unsuited to the bureau's needs.

Ms. Rogavan says the Virtual Case File system is symptomatic of the FBI's difficult period of post-9/11 adjustment.

"The Virtual Case File, to my understanding, is going to prove to be an even bigger disaster than has been acknowledged so far," she continued. "And I think that as that unravels, you're going to really get some sense of how big a challenge the FBI faces in resolving one the central criticisms that it confronted after the 9/11 attacks, which is how to modernize its information technology."

After several more public hearings, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project will issue a report card later this year on implementation of commission recommendations.