The FBI Files: 10 Years Later, A Lens on a Changing Agency


The intelligence failure of the 9/11 attacks leveled intense criticism at the FBI.  While some critics declared the agency completely broken, others argued that it needed to be radically reformed from a law enforcement agency into a modern counterterrorist force.

As the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, recent reporting on the FBI has shed light on how the bureau has sought to transform itself into a domestic intelligence agency focused on preventing potential threats to national security:

TIME: Is the FBI Up to the Job 10 Years after 9/11?

“[This new way of thinking] is wickedly important to him. You want to make sure you gather all the intelligence you can possibly get before you decide to disrupt.”

Barton Gellman assesses the remaking of the agency under director Robert Mueller, who began in the position just one week before 9/11 and recently received a two-year extension to stay in the role until 2013.  With access to Mueller on the job, as well as those who have worked with him closely, the article is a rare profile of the media-shy director, whom Gellman describes as “careful to dodge the spotlight.”

Among the changes Mueller brought to the FBI, writes Gellman, was doubling the number of agents working on national security and tripling the number of analysts; focusing on opportunities to trace terrorists’ support networks; increasing reliance on private-sector managers within the agency; and expanding the FBI’s global role.

Gellman describes the bureau’s successes under Mueller — including thwarting Najibullah Zazi’s September 2009 plot to bomb the New York city subway system — as well as its failures, like an “epochal investigation of the 2001 anthrax letters that concentrated for years on the wrong man.”  The article also analyzes the bureau’s complex structure, which “lumps together in one superagency” both law enforcement tasks and domestic intelligence roles.

The New York Times: FBI Focusing on Security Over Ordinary Crime

Two years of data obtained by the Times through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests showed that FBI agents were more likely to seek potential national security threats than they were to seek ordinary criminals, “but much of the time found neither.” Of 42,888 assessments to determine whether individuals and groups were terrorists or spies, 1,986 led to preliminary or full investigations.

Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now at the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the data shows the FBI is “casting its investigative net too broadly.” But FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni said it demonstrated that new investigative standards were “privacy-protective because previously, without a well-developed, robust assessment category, many if not most of those assessments would have been opened as preliminary investigations.”

Mother Jones: Terrorists for the FBI: Inside the Bureau’s Secret Network that Traps and Surveils Americans

The Informants: For the past year, Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley examined the prosecutions of 508 defendants in terror cases.  Their investigation found that to accomplish its mission — “preemption,” “prevention” and “disruption” of domestic “lone wolf” attacks — the bureau has developed a network of 15,000 informants — a dramatically higher number that its been known to have in the past. But, as Trever Aaronson reports:

To that end, FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity.

Aaronson examines how the FBI leverages immigration troubles to coerce individuals to become informants and how the bureau looks for threats in Muslim communities using a data-mining system known as Domain Management, to “pinpoint the demographics of specific ethnic and religious communities.”

Locked Up Abroad for the FBI Another report, from Nick Baumann, reveals that the FBI “has a long-standing and until now undisclosed program for facilitating” the apprehension and detention of U.S. citizens by foreign governments. Baumann reports the program is run through FBI legal attaches, known as “Legats,” who are stationed at U.S. embassies abroad. In a statement to Mother Jones, the FBI responded:

There are occasions when the FBI has carefully reviewed information and elected to share that information with foreign law enforcement services. At times, those services may decide to locate or detain an individual or conduct an investigation based on the shared information.


Harper’s Magazine: To Catch a Terrorist: the FBI Hunts for the Enemy Within

“In at least one instance, in Chicago last year, the FBI instructed informants to pay a suspect so he could quit his day job and focus on jihad.”

Petra Bartosiewicz chronicles how the FBI has “expanded its investigative purview” to focus on potential threats by seeking “pre-terrorists,” or people whose intentions, as opposed to real actions, are the primary threat.  She looks at the agency’s expansion of surveillance capabilities under the Patriot Act and how informants — some with dubious qualifications — now play a more active role in shaping cases, often “encouraging or even coercing” individuals to commit violent acts they may not have had previous inclinations to commit.

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