TOPICS > Politics

Redesigning the FBI

May 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, an assessment of these [reform] proposals. We get that from three people who’ve watched the bureau closely over many years. Michael Bromwich is the former Inspector General of the Department of Justice during the Carter Administration– he also investigated the FBI’s handling of the Aldrich Ames matter and defective procedures at the FBI laboratory; Harry Brandon was an FBI special agent for 23 years, and served as the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI for Counter Terrorism and Counterintelligence; Elaine Shannon is the Law Enforcement and National Security Correspondent for Time magazine.

Mr. Brandon, what do you think of what Director Mueller just said and is planning to do?

HARRY BRANDON: I think he’s very much on the right track. He’s taking a very aggressive approach. I think we do have to remember though that he’s literally in middle of a war and he’s trying to rebuild the whole process. I think it’s going to be tough. I really think it’s going to be hard but he’s aiming in the right direction.

JIM LEHRER: Does it seem as remarkable to you, as a former FBI agent, hearing a director of the FBI talk the way he did today as it does to some of us on the outside?

HARRY BRANDON: He’s delivering a pretty strong message not only to the public but I think of equal importance to him he’s delivering a message inside the FBI.

He’s saying we’re going to remake it, we’re going to redo it. It is interesting to see him talk that way, you’re right.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bromwich, what do you make of what Mr. Mueller said?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I think the tone of what he said is extraordinary, the willingness to open the Bureau to outside influences, the willingness to accept criticism for the institution and for Director Mueller personally.

I think it is quite extraordinary but we need to keep in mind what he is asking the Bureau to do, which is to fundamentally change its mission from being the premiere federal law enforcement agency, much more in the direction of being a domestic intelligence agency.

That’s very different from what the Bureau has done before. It’s also very different than the job that FBI agents signed up for when they decided to become FBI agents. And I think just thinking about that makes it clear what an enormous challenge Director Mueller faces.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning he may have the wrong people on the job to do the new job?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: The new job is so significantly different from the old job that he may not have the right mix of people.

People who formerly joined up to be FBI agents were those who were interested in putting bad guys in jail — people who engaged in organized crime, narcotics trafficking and so forth. The tasks that agents are now going to be asked to do are very, very different from that. They’re extraordinarily important but they’re very different.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Brandon, pick up on that. Tell us the difference between what the average FBI agent does today and what Director Mueller is going to ask them to do now.

HARRY BRANDON: Well, I may disagree a little bit with that. I don’t think there is as big a gap as we’ve just heard.

In fact, the FBI has a rare opportunity. They’re going to bring trained investigators, skilled investigators, into the intelligence field, and I think that’s a dimension that will make them much stronger. I think it’s a very positive thing. It’s going to take some work and training but I think it’s a positive thing.

JIM LEHRER: Make the connection, say, between a field agent who spends, who has been spending most of his or her time, say, on the bank robbery detail and is now… saying now you are a intelligence gatherer.

What’s the connection?

HARRY BRANDON: You know, there’s not a lot of difference. They collect information. The targeting, what they do with the information may be different. There’s not a lot of difference. And this is not totally new to the FBI. This has certainly happened before. I started out with a criminal background and ended up….

JIM LEHRER: Criminal investigative background.

HARRY BRANDON: Criminal investigative background, absolutely.


HARRY BRANDON: And ended up being assigned to counterintelligence work.

JIM LEHRER: Without any background in that specifically. They trained you in that.

HARRY BRANDON: They trained it. I trained in it. Then agents… I went back and forth in my career between the two disciplines.

I may be a little bit prejudiced, but I think that it can give the FBI strength.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Elaine Shannon, you’ve done a lot of reporting about the FBI through the years. And you heard what has been said about the need also first of all to get the message to the average FBI agent today.

How do you think this is going to be received based on your reporting?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, the field people have been very worried about all this talk about centralization and having even more people at headquarters, which they’d like to blow up, chop on the things they want to do.

It’s very hard to open a terrorism investigation in a post-Watergate atmosphere. You can’t just open it because somebody looks suspicious.

JIM LEHRER: Because of court orders and all kinds of rules and –

ELAINE SHANNON: Not just court orders, just to open an international terrorism investigation takes certain kinds of showings, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt but higher than you think. And so there’s been a lot of chafing about that. And they were really chilled when they heard he was going to centralize it. So he’s saying to them I’m centralizing but I’m centralizing to help you. They’re going to say, well, you’re from the IRS, and you’re here to help me – you know — we’ll see.

I think they will be very skeptical but it’s a good message if it works for them that headquarters is going to be more aggressive, help them get the information they need to make their cases better and not sneer at them or sit on them for six weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bromwich, pick up on your — you are concerned about whether or not this can, in fact, be done at all or are you concerned that the costs and the time may be much higher than anybody realizes?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I think it’s something that needs to be tried and it certainly needs to be done. I just think we need to be realistic about how difficult it will be to fundamentally change the mission of an agency that has 11,500 agents and is close to 30,000 personnel all told.

You can’t create as your two top priorities counter terrorism and espionage, which a couple of years ago really didn’t rank that high, and expect it to be a smooth transition and expect everything to go well. I just think we need to be careful in understanding that this is going to be a long, difficult process, and we shouldn’t expect miracles overnight.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have an opinion on this headquarters versus field discussion?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: Well, the tension between headquarters and the field has been traditional in the FBI.

The field views headquarters as obstructionists and people who are always looking to put up caution flags and stop signs. Headquarters views itself as imposing quality control on the field and making sure that the rights of Americans are protected and investigations aren’t opened at the drop of a hat.

So the tension between the two has been there and it’s been one that the Bureau has tried to overcome. I think what’s critical for the Bureau to overcome now is the resistance that talented people in the field have to coming to headquarters.

If Mr. Mueller, in fact, is going to centralize a lot of the counter terrorism operations, he’s going to need to attract talented people from the field to work at headquarters. Most people, as Elaine Shannon noted, who are in the field want to blow up headquarters. They don’t want to join headquarters. So getting talent at the center, which I think is necessary to have a viable national counter terrorism program, is not going to be easy.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Brandon you are nodding the entire time when Mr. Bromwich was talking, particularly when he said nobody is going to want to come here. Is he right?

HARRY BRANDON: There’s some truth to that. There’s no question about that. Agents have lives. They have families. This is all part of the process, and it’s very disruptive.

I think what may happen is that although they’re centralizing some of the analytical capabilities is that ultimately I think we’ll see more authority flow back to the field.

JIM LEHRER: You mean to initiate investigations.

HARRY BRANDON: To initiate and conduct and guide and direct investigations. I think that’s going to be one of the solutions.

JIM LEHRER: If I heard was Mueller was saying, the headquarters’ job is going to be to make sure that something that’s found in Oklahoma is passed on to somebody in Minneapolis and all that which is not happening now clearly.

HARRY BRANDON: It’s not happening effectively and efficiently at all. He has to do that.

But he’s also clearly said he’s not going to take authority away from the field. That’s important.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s talk about Robert Mueller himself. Elaine Shannon, you were there today. Give us — take us there. Give us the scene. What was it like? He spoke for a long time and answered you all’s questions for a long time, did he not?

ELAINE SHANNON: Several hours. He spoke formerly… formally at first.

Then he went out and took off his jacket and came back and talked for as long as we wanted to talk.

JIM LEHRER: On the record?

ELAINE SHANNON: Oh, yes. Bob Mueller is a trial lawyer; he’s a smart trial lawyer. And he handles himself very well on his feet.

And he caught something else that I think is very important. You didn’t show it here but he said you know we all make mistakes and we have to admit them. We can’t be defensive — in fact, I made a mistake and let me tell you about it. He talked about how right after 9/11 he said, well, we had no idea that terrorists might be using flight schools.

And he says now I realize we had the Phoenix memo; there was another memo from an FBI pilot in Oklahoma who saw some Middle Eastern people — that he was suspicious about — taking flight lessons. There’s another memo about somebody in another country trying to buy a simulator and then there’s this situation with.. And, so they did know and he says, I made a mistake, and I have to say that. He’s sending a signal that maybe you won’t get your head chopped off if you make a mistake. That’s a good signal to send if that what he means, because under Louis Freeh, Louis Freeh could be quite hard on people who made mistakes. And this created or helped create or perpetuate the climate of fear that Coleen Rowley talked about.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your reading of Robert Mueller and his ability to do now what he now says needs to be done?

HARRY BRANDON: I think he can do it. He has to do it.


HARRY BRANDON: He’s a Marine. He’s a leader.

JIM LEHRER: You’re no longer in the Bureau but clearly you have a lot of friends who are still in the Bureau and talking to the people in the Bureau.


JIM LEHRER: What’s the word on Robert Mueller?

HARRY BRANDON: He brooks no fools but he will listen to people. He’ll listen to dissent. He makes a decision and he expects you to follow. It’s a positive feeling.

JIM LEHRER: Positive feeling.


JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bromwich, What’s your reading on Robert Mueller?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I think he’s a talented, intelligent aggressive guy who probably has one of the most difficult jobs in government right now.

I think there is going to be a lot of resistance in the FBI to these plans. I think he’s strong enough to overcome the resistance but we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it will be for him.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bromwich, let me read you a quote that Senator Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, in a statement he issued today, he’s been critical of the FBI in the past.

And here’s what he said after the Mueller news conference, et cetera. He said, “The credibility of the FBI and its leadership have been put at risk in recent weeks, and the reaction has been to cover up rather than to come clean about what went wrong. Reorganizing the Bureau won’t make much difference if the FBI doesn’t hold accountable those responsible for these mistakes. This doesn’t need to be a witch-hunt, but the problem has to be fixed.”

He’s talking about the Moussaoui case and all of those sort of things have to be cleaned up and cleared up first. Do you agree with him?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I do think they need to be cleared up. I disagree that this whole reorganization plan was an attempt to change the subject and distract attention away from Agent Rowley’s letter and the whole Moussaoui situation. But I certainly agree with Senator Grassley that people need to be held accountable, and it sounded like what Director Mueller was talking about was holding himself accountable.

He thanked her for writing the letter. He said that criticism was welcome and was important for him and for the agency. Frankly it’s hard to imagine any prior Director saying things like that.

JIM LEHRER: You agree, Mr. Brandon?

HARRY BRANDON: I do. I think it was remarkable.

JIM LEHRER: Elaine Shannon, could you imagine an FBI director doing what he did today?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, I’ve seen Director Webster do… be humble himself. There are not too many other situations though. But we’ll see what happens to the… I’d like to know the facts surrounding the supervisor she criticized for obstructing the investigation.


ELAINE SHANNON: Yes and for other people in the FBI. Mueller said he is going to wait until he hears the IG — Mr. Bromwich’s old job — decide before he decides what to do. I think we need to know more than just one person’s side of this story.

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with Senator Grassley that there’s more to this than reorganizing, there’s still some accountability thing?

ELAINE SHANNON: Yeah. I don’t see a cover up, but I certainly want to know more about all if these individuals before we decide this person is good and that person is bad.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you all three very much.