WASHINGTON--For the nation, Sept. 11 ended the 1990s holiday from history. For the FBI, that day ended the 1950s.
The attacks catalyzed an institutional crisis that could have left a demoralized FBI with its skills squandered and its mission diminished. Fortunately for the FBI, on 9/11 its new director, Robert Mueller, had been on the job just seven days. Seeing everything fresh, he saw that the FBI, too, suddenly had a new job, one that it was neither technologically nor professionally prepared to perform.
Certain ``fact patterns'' about pre-Sept. 11 activities in America had not been discerned or properly analyzed by the FBI. Some acute analyses by FBI agents--e.g., the Phoenix office's memo warning that al Qaeda might be training terrorists at U.S. flight schools--had not been properly disseminated within the FBI. Many critics declared counterterrorism a task beyond the FBI's existing or possible competence.
Now, in the 17th month of Mueller's race to reform, some halls of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building are lined with boxes containing new computers. Interviewed in his office, Mueller emphasizes the new information technologies, and the new skill sets the technologies presuppose and will foster. He clearly expects the FBI to be central to counterterrorism, and counterterrorism to be central to the FBI.
In his measured manner, Mueller says of a scathing Senate report on the FBI's pre-Sept. 11 limitations, ``A lot of it was not inaccurate.'' But transformation begins with people and ``a lot of the better agents want to be in counterterrorsim.'' By the end of this year they will be fully armed with the new ``virtual case file'' system, which is a radical change from what Mueller calls ``the work flow and process''--the ``legacy of paper''--of the 1950s.
The FBI is, Mueller says, the world's best institution at collecting information for building a prosecutable case after a crime has been committed. But it needs additional skills, those for analyzing and disseminating information pertinent to the task of preventing terrorist acts.
Assigning a new agency the task of domestic counterterrorism would require the duplication of the FBI's information-collecting capability, an institutional asset built up during nearly seven decades. By putting the FBI through a double-time march to technological sophistication, and away from a merely prosecutorial mentality, Mueller has stolen the march on those who favor putting homeland security in the hands of a new agency whose first task would be to duplicate skills the FBI
Time was, an agent put information on paper and gave it to a supervisor. Result? Two people knew it. Mueller has been reading books by Louis Gerstner of IBM and Jack Welch of General Electric about restructuring large corporations to share information horizontally rather than just vertically. The FBI's new task is to find, relate and analyze drops of pertinent information in a sea of data, and share this knowledge broadly and quickly.
In his State of the Union address, the president said: ``There is never a day when I do not learn of another threat, or receive reports of operations in progress, or give an order in this global war against a scattered network of killers.'' Mueller, who briefs the president each morning, can now make segments of the network visible.
Seventeen million terrorism documents, plus another 6 million from Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been scanned into the FBI's ``relational database,'' which soon will contain 40 million documents. Enter an individual's name, the software can identify--factoring alternative spellings of the name--the names of others associated in some way with him. Having done the same for a second individual, the technology can then link to the names of people linked to both. The computer screen becomes a strikingly complex pattern of intersecting lines--a map of terrorism.
War is history's accelerator, increasing the velocity of change--political, social, economic, cultural, institutional. In September 1942, the government purchased 59,000 acres of Eastern Tennessee, built an instant city, Oak Ridge, and sophisticated scientific facilities, and in 34 months--in July 1945--the atomic age dawned.
The war on terror has accelerated Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's drive for military forces different than those that won the Cold War. Mueller is a comparable reformer. His technology-driven transformation of the FBI culture from reactive to proactive may have saved the FBI from an amputation injurious to it and to homeland security. If J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI's George Washington, the founder, then Mueller may be its Lincoln, the preserver who redefined what he preserved, thereby enlarging it.