The FBI has stumbled badly in its attempts to remake itself since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is plagued by high turnover, poor training and its continued inability to build a modern computer system, according to a panel convened yesterday by the members of the commission that investigated the terror strikes.
The problems are so acute that members of the influential commission may want to reconsider whether the United States needs a separate agency to handle domestic intelligence, one Democratic member said.
Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general, said the commission was "taken aback" by the extent of FBI failures documented in several recent reports, including the FBI's scrapping of an expensive computer upgrade and its continued difficulty hiring qualified intelligence analysts. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other officials had assured the commission that such problems were being addressed, commission officials said.
The remarks came during the first in a series of hearings to be held this summer by former members of the Sept. 11 commission, which was officially disbanded after the release of its best-selling report last year but has reorganized as a private nonprofit group, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project.
The 10-member bipartisan panel plans to issue a "report card" on the government's performance in improving its counterterrorism efforts. Its two leaders, chairman Thomas H. Kean (R) and vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D), also plan to send a letter to government agencies this week asking administration officials to appear at hearings and provide records documenting counterterrorism efforts since the report was issued.
Unlike the Sept. 11 commission itself -- which elicited gripping testimony and forced passage of a broad intelligence reform law -- the private group has no power to issue subpoenas or compel production of records. But Kean said in an interview yesterday that he hopes the panel can leverage its remaining clout to get cooperation from the government.
"I think the 10 of us have credibility in this area," said Kean, a former New Jersey governor. "As we looked at the reasons that other commissions have been unsuccessful, one of the reasons is that there was no follow-through. This is our follow-through."
Kean and other group officials say the summer campaign is aimed at continuing the debate over intelligence policies and focusing attention on changes recommended by the commission that have not been implemented, such as restructuring the way Congress oversees intelligence issues.
"There is a natural tendency to believe that if you pass a piece of legislation to deal with a problem, the problem goes away," Gorelick said after the hearing. "We hope to focus public attention again."
FBI Assistant Director Cassandra M. Chandler said in a statement yesterday that the FBI has undergone "an unprecedented transformation," since the Sept. 11 attacks, including creation of an intelligence directorate, increased cooperation with local law enforcement and other improvements.
"By building our intelligence capabilities, improving our technology and working together, we have and will continue to develop the capabilities we need to succeed against all threats," Chandler said.
Yesterday's hearing was held to discuss both CIA and FBI reforms, but most of the focus was on the FBI. John Gannon, a former veteran CIA official, said the FBI "has not made an adequate investment" in creating a cadre of experienced intelligence analysts with status equal to FBI special agents.
"If you are not an agent, you are furniture," Gannon said, echoing the findings of one recent report that found FBI analysts handling the phones and other menial tasks. "As long as that ethos is there . . . you will continue to have this problem."
Former attorney general Richard Thornburgh, who also appeared at the hearing and led an outside investigation of the FBI's counterterrorism efforts, said the bureau's "shortcoming in this area is notorious and well known." He also said the FBI's inability to implement a new computerized system for managing cases was "an unmitigated failure."