Old-School Academy in Post-9/11 World
Thursday, August 17, 2006
In a classroom at the FBI Academy in Quantico, instructor Rodney Loose was trying to introduce the history of Islam to a new group of future agents. He had one hour.
The 50 men and women would be joining the ranks of an agency whose top officials have declared fighting terrorism to be its No. 1 priority. They listened intently as Loose rushed through his topics: Sunnis and Shiites, the Koran, Mecca and Medina, four-part Arabic names, and the five pillars of Islam.
"Can you tell us about sleeper cells?" a recruit asked.
"I'm sorry, I don't think we're going to have time to get into this," a frustrated Loose said. "I wish I had more time to go through this. But it's just not possible."
Since the FBI came under withering criticism for its part in the intelligence community's failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the bureau has added 37 hours of counterterrorism training at Quantico for new agents. But that represents just 5 percent of the curriculum, and only one hour is about Islam, Arabic culture and understanding the terrorist mind-set
With so little time, Loose could just make it through Page 7 of his 14-page handout. No time to discuss suicide bombers, Islamic extremism or terrorist psychology.
In a graduation speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point this May, President Bush declared: "We have transformed the FBI into an agency whose primary focus is stopping terrorism." But Loose's predicament goes to the heart of whether the tradition-bound bureau, famously resistant to change, has fulfilled that mandate.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, some of the FBI's harshest critics concluded that trying to restructure the agency was pointless and called instead for creating an entirely new domestic intelligence agency. But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III convinced Congress and the administration that the bureau should be the lead domestic counterterrorism agency, combining traditional law enforcement duties with the intelligence-gathering necessary to penetrate terrorist cells and prevent attacks. He promised the training would reflect that new role.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said the year after the attacks: "The FBI deserves a chance to get its act together." He added: "But their time to move from investigating Bonnie-and-Clyde-type crimes to preventing terrorist activities is getting shorter."
Last fall, the FBI granted a Washington Post reporter unprecedented post-9/11 access to a class of recruits as the students underwent 18 weeks of training at Quantico. Here, on a 385-acre portion of the giant Marine Corps base 40 miles south of Washington, is where 750 recruits this year will be imbued with the FBI's culture, tested by physical challenges and taught basic skills in a nationally renowned law enforcement program. Here, too, terrorism and intelligence experts say, is where the bureau must translate the rhetoric of its director and the president into a curriculum that prepares future agents for a new mission.
Teaching the Past
Some changes in the academy's approach are evident. More recruits have advanced degrees and stronger backgrounds in science and computers. They no longer memorize the names of New York's five organized-crime families, and classes on the mob, health-care fraud and white-collar crime have been replaced by lectures and hands-on training in investigative techniques. The agents-in-training stay longer at Quantico than past recruits to take the week of new classes on terrorism and intelligence.
"It's way beyond what it's been in the past," said Keith Slotter, the academy's deputy assistant director for training. "We didn't have any intelligence training before 9/11."