National Security

Criminal Minds

Why the FBI still isn't good at stopping terrorists.

About the only thing that moved faster than the manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev was speculation about whether the FBI should have been able to stop them. Just days after the April 15 attack, House Intelligence Committee Chairman (and former FBI agent) Mike Rogers was on the Sunday talk show circuit, staunchly defending the bureau. "I don't think they missed anything....You can't ask them to do something with nothing," Rogers told "Meet the Press." Meanwhile, over at CNN, Senator Lindsey Graham was blaming the FBI for dropping the ball. "The charges and countercharges are stunning," said one FBI official. "The dust hasn't even settled. Let's find out what happened."

Finding out what happened will be trickier than it sounds. Crowdsourcing with iPhones, Twitter, and Lord & Taylor surveillance video worked wonders to nail the two suspects with lightning speed. But assessing whether the bombing constituted an intelligence failure will require more time, patience, and something most people don't think about much: understanding U.S. counter-terrorism organizations and their incentives and cultures, which lead officials to prioritize some things and forget, or neglect, others.

As Washington cranks into "what went wrong" mode, the temptation will be to focus on whether individuals made mistakes. Who investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and what, if anything, did the investigator miss? Did FBI officials ignore Russia's warnings when they shouldn't have? These kinds of questions are important, but they can also be misleading -- because the root causes of intelligence failures are often much harder to see. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 did not occur because someone somewhere dropped the ball. They happened because our entire intelligence apparatus didn't have the cultures, career incentives, or structures to get the ball even close to the right people.

These are still very early days in the Boston case. But it is high time we asked some hard, public questions about whether the new FBI is really new enough. Transformation -- moving the bureau from a crime-fighting organization to a domestic intelligence agency -- has been the FBI's watchword since 9/11. And much has changed. Yes, the bureau has thwarted a number of plots and gotten much better at handling its terrorism portfolio. Yes, the bureau has tripled the number of intelligence analysts. And, yes, the FBI now generates thousands of pages of intelligence reports each year.

But the silent killer of innovation in the FBI has always been culture -- specifically, a century-old law enforcement culture that glorifies catching perps on a street rather than connecting dots behind a desk, that prizes agents above intelligence analysts, and that views job number one as gathering evidence of a past or ongoing crime for a day in court instead of preventing the next attack. Culture can have serious real-world consequences, coloring how talented people in the FBI do their jobs and, perhaps more importantly, what they think their jobs actually are.

Case in point: What exactly does it mean to "investigate" a terrorist suspect like Tamerlan Tsarnaev before an attack transpires? Sounds straightforward. It isn't. The FBI has always been world-class at investigating a terrorist attack after the boom. Investigating before the boom is another matter.

In the FBI's traditional law enforcement view of the world, pre-boom terrorism investigations are supposed to hunt narrowly for evidence that someone has committed a terrorist offense or is in the midst of breaking the law right now. In the intelligence view of the world, these investigations are supposed to search widely for information that someone could be a terrorist next month, next year, or next decade -- or that they are somehow connected to others who might. These are two radically different perspectives. One focuses on the past and present, looking specifically for evidence to make or close a case. It's a snapshot. The other peers over the horizon, looking broadly for information to compile a moving picture. Law enforcement searches for closure. Intelligence searches for ground truth. This is not just a legal matter about what authorities the FBI can use when. It's a matter of what perspective an investigator takes, what questions are asked, how information is interpreted, what follow-up occurs, whether and how information gets synthesized and analyzed to see patterns before disaster strikes.

The FBI says it "gets" intelligence and does it well now, but recent history says otherwise.

Consider Maj. Nidal Hasan's attack in 2009 on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, which killed 13 people. The FBI "investigated" Hasan, all right, but it wasn't pretty. Nearly a year before the attack, the bureau learned that he was emailing Anwar al-Awlaki, the dangerous and inspirational al Qaeda cleric in Yemen who was later killed in a drone strike. Yet the FBI's investigation of Hasan took just four hours. One Joint Terrorism Task Force member in Washington ran his name through some databases and found nothing alarming. He decided not to interview anyone, including Hasan himself, and his FBI supervisor agreed. He reviewed Hasan's two emails to Awlaki (including one that asked whether Muslim soldiers who commit fratricide would be considered martyrs) and concluded that Hasan must be okay because he was emailing using his real name. The investigator, who was a Defense Department official temporarily assigned to the FBI's terrorism task force, had almost no counterterrorism experience, and it showed. The investigation was viewed entirely through a law enforcement lens, asking whether Hasan was a terrorist at that moment, not whether he could be heading down a dangerous path to radicalization and violence. The investigation was looking to close a case, not pull an intelligence thread.

There were plenty of threads to be pulled. Hasan was no clever jihadist operating in the shadows. For years, he had been openly spewing extremist rhetoric that alarmed numerous peers and superiors inside the Army. A colleague and instructor each described him as a "ticking time bomb." In oral presentations, class papers, and casual conversations, Hasan justified suicide bombings, charged that U.S. military operations were a war against Islam, defended Osama bin Laden, and declared that his religion took precedence over the U.S. Constitution he was sworn to defend as an Army officer. Just about the only thing Hasan did not do was wear a T-shirt that said, "I am an Islamist extremist contemplating acts of violence against my fellow soldiers."

There's more. As soon as the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force concluded that no active terrorist activities could be found, the investigation ended, even though Hasan's emails to Awlaki continued for the next six months and demonstrated growing radicalization. None of this was known to the FBI because nobody was asking. The case was closed. Hasan was not a terrorist. But he was becoming one.

I have to wonder: Is this what happened in Boston? Were FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigators looking for evidence of a current crime when they should have been looking for intelligence about a potential future threat? Did they even know enough about Chechen violent Islamist extremism or Tamerlan Tsarnaev to ask the right questions? Did they tap FBI analysts to gain background knowledge or a broader understanding of the evolving terrorist threat environment? Nearly half of all personnel on FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces are loaned to the FBI from other agencies and most come with law enforcement backgrounds and skills. As one former senior FBI counterterrorism official told me, "They bring strengths...but those guys, most of them, are wired to look for evidence, just like agents. Let's be honest."

Perhaps Boston was a horrific, unpreventable tragedy. Maybe the two suspects did not have enough of a trail for the FBI to have stopped them in time. Maybe the Russian government withheld too much information for too long. Maybe we did all we could, the best we could, and it wasn't enough. As more information comes to light, however, more light needs to be shined on the craggy hold of the FBI's law enforcement culture and whether it played a role. In post-mortems, like most intelligence matters, getting the right answers hinges on asking the right questions.

John Moore/Getty Images

National Security

Wait, Did the System Just Work?

Congress performs oversight on drones -- and gets results.

The Obama White House deployed a new unmanned aerial vehicle last week: the drone trial balloon. According to several well-placed leakers, the CIA's not-so-secret targeted killing program will probably be not-so-secretly handed over to the Pentagon in the coming months. It was the rarest of moments in American politics: a time when congressional oversight of intelligence seemed to work.

The government's targeted killing program went from a hot prospect to a hot potato with lightning speed for the policy world. Just months ago, the Obama administration was trumpeting the effectiveness of targeted killing operations -- which have been publicly carried out by the Pentagon in some places and publicly known to be carried out by the CIA in others like Pakistan and Yemen. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney out-droned the president on the campaign trail, saying in the October 22 presidential debate that he supported the drone strikes "entirely" and that "we should continue to use [drone technology] continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends." To be sure, the ACLU has complained and filed lawsuits, think tanks have been counting up collateral deaths, and professors have had a field day debating just war theory and exploring the creepiness of remote control killing. But these criticisms did not move the policy dial much until February 7, when John Brennan faced his Senate confirmation hearing to be CIA director.

Brennan's hearing was a crucial focal point, the first time anything resembling a public debate about targeted killing had ever occurred. Brennan wasn't just some sideline figure caught up in someone else's policy fight like Chuck Hagel was in the Benghazi brouhaha. Targeted killing was Brennan's baby. In his old job as Obama's White House czar for homeland security and counterterrorism, Brennan had masterminded the program, from creating the bureaucratic processes determining which agency did what, right down to naming names for the kill list. In his new job, Brennan would have enormous sway over the CIA's future activities, including lethal drone strikes.

The timeline is revealing: On February 4, just three days before Brennan was slated to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, someone leaked the administration's drone "white paper" summarizing the legal arguments used to justify drone strikes against Americans abroad. Suddenly, senators on the intelligence committee started getting partial access to some of the legal documents they had been requesting for months. This may not sound like much, but it beat what they had before: no access at all. You could hear chinks opening in the drone stonewall all over town.

At Brennan's hearing, there were anti-drone protesters a'plenty, many with giant posters they had somehow smuggled inside. One by one, heckling protesters were taken from the hearing room by Capitol police. But like one of those circus clown cars, more protesters kept appearing, seemingly from nowhere. Committee chair Dianne Feinstein had to halt the proceedings several times and eventually clear the entire room before Brennan could finish enough of his opening statement to thank his 91-year-old mother. It was a powerful scene, and it set the tone. Senators ranging from Republican Susan Collins to Democrat Ron Wyden pounded the soon-to-be CIA director on targeted-killing policy. Brennan responded with a masterful political performance -- long on assurances, short on concrete commitments. The White House promised to release more, but not all, the drone-related documents that the committee wanted. That was enough for Feinstein's committee, but not for Rand Paul, the wacky rookie Republican senator from Kentucky, who delivered a decidedly unwacky 13-hour filibuster against Brennan's confirmation, demanding better answers and greater transparency in drone policy. Paul's filibuster drew bipartisan support, tremendous national attention, and would have gone longer, except that he had to pee.

The intelligence committee's establishment politics and Paul's populist filibuster proved strange but effective bedfellows. It took just 42 days from Brennan's hearing to get wind that the CIA may be getting out of the drone business. That's warp speed under any circumstances. Consider this: Immediately after 9/11, it took longer to pass the PATRIOT Act, and that's back when Republicans and Democrats were singing "God Bless America" together on the Capitol steps.

However you feel about targeted killing, this moment was undoubtedly an oversight success, bringing an important policy into the public domain, where it can be scrutinized, defended, challenged, and discussed in a vigorous exchange between the legislative and executive branches, all without compromising national security. Was it pretty? No. But it was American democracy at its spirited best. Secrecy and accountability both won.

But don't get used to it. The drone policy shift is the exception that proves the rule: On most intelligence issues on most days, intelligence oversight is feckless, and Congress knows it. "I've been on this committee for more than 10 years," Senator Barbara Mikulski told Brennan during his confirmation, "and with the exception of Mr. Panetta, I feel I've been jerked around by every CIA director." And that's just what she says in public.

It's true that no administration lays out the CIA welcome mat for Congress. But Congress lets itself get jerked around far more than it should. Want to guess how many members of the current Congress have ever worked in intelligence before? Two. This means that most intelligence committee members have to learn on the job, which takes the one thing in shortest supply: time. If legislators want to win the next election, they're better off devoting time to other committees that offer pork and other benefits to folks back home and involve policy issues that they can at least talk about in public. From a re-election perspective, intelligence committee service is always a political loser. This is no secret. My research has found that fewer of Congress's most powerful members serve on the House and Senate intelligence committees today than they did in the 1980s, even though intelligence is arguably more important and challenging. What's more, the House still imposes term limits for representatives serving on the House intelligence committee (almost no other committees have them), ensuring that members have to rotate off just when they finally know what they are doing.

The Senate, meanwhile, has been holding fewer and fewer public hearings. As Steven Aftergood notes, the committee held only one public hearing in all of 2012, "the smallest number of public hearings the Committee has held in at least 25 years and possibly ever." To be fair, much oversight is done in private. But if the drone debate is any guide, the public part counts. A lot.