The FBI's 2nd-Class Citizens

By Melanie W. Sisson
Saturday, December 31, 2005

Why is the FBI having so much trouble keeping its intelligence analysts -- the kind of people who are vitally important to its post-Sept. 11 mission?

The problem was laid out at a congressional hearing a few months ago by the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine. He noted that the FBI is suffering a high rate of attrition among its most recently hired and most highly educated analysts, and he concluded that the bureau needs to stop assigning them duties that have nothing much to do with analysis and to offer better retention incentives.

Fine is right on both counts, but a lot more than that is needed. The pace and scope of attrition in the ranks of the FBI's analysts suggest root causes that are more serious in nature and more systemic in effect than the inspector general and the bureau realize. It wasn't the photocopying or the lack of promotion potential that compelled me to leave my job as an FBI analyst this year -- it was the frustration of working in a system that does not yet recognize analysis as a full partner in the FBI's national security mission.

In January 2003, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III established an Intelligence Program to transform the bureau's closely held national security function into one responsive to the needs of the intelligence, homeland security, law enforcement and defense communities. To bring about this transition, the Intelligence Program recognized the need for an analytic body within the FBI capable of assessing, producing and appropriately disseminating case information, and it quickly began hiring analysts in unprecedented numbers. Perhaps too quickly, since it hadn't really been determined yet just what resources and procedures were needed to enable the bureau's analytical function and ensure the quality of its product.

As a result, analysts who joined the FBI with the goal of contributing to national security discovered that there was no system in place to promote or support the kind of work they do. Analysts found that in many cases they had to operate with a dearth of information and intelligence resources. For example, not all the people carrying the title "All Source Analyst" in the division for which I worked even had desktop access to the Internet or to intelligence community e-mail and intranet servers.

More inhibiting has been the absence of uniform and institutionalized procedures for providing analysts with intelligence collected by the FBI itself. There is no guidance giving field offices the information they need to direct case reporting to the appropriate analytic groups, and no policy mandating that they do so. In this vacuum, the analyst's access to investigative data becomes almost entirely a function of personal relationships cultivated with agents in the field -- a difficult task for those whose work it is to assess threats emerging across the nation and overseas.

A system in which analysts are not guaranteed access to investigative information, one in which they must ask to be given the intelligence they were hired to assess, marginalizes analysts professionally and demoralizes them personally. It is a circumstance that not only breeds frustration and dissatisfaction but, by tacitly condoning the perception that analysis is of secondary importance to the FBI, perpetuates the bureau's traditional "cop culture," in which everything is focused on the agent and the case -- a culture that Mueller has committed himself to changing.

Most important, limited access to case information prevents FBI analysts from doing what they are hired to do: provide decision makers with quality intelligence products that contain the best information available. Without the satisfaction of believing our work meets that standard, it's not hard to understand why many of us have chosen to leave.

Ultimately there will be no more meaningful measure of Mueller's success in transforming the culture of the FBI from that of cops to that of spies than the extent to which analysis becomes recognized as a full and integrated partner in the bureau's national security mission. This will require an observable increase in the director's commitment to enhancing the visibility and authority of analysts within the FBI, to providing analysts the resources they need, and to ensuring timely and effective transmission of information from operational to analytical personnel. Until these shortcomings are remedied, the quality of the FBI's work will suffer, and too many analysts will continue to find their jobs more frustrating than fulfilling.

The writer was an intelligence analyst at FBI headquarters from December 2003 to May 2005.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company