FBI: New and improving

Posted: May 12, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- FBI Director Robert Mueller a month ago received an unsolicited, unexpected letter from Col. Edward T. Norris, Maryland's newly appointed state police superintendent. As Baltimore police chief, Norris was one of the FBI's sharpest critics following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Now, he concedes improvement.

"You have fulfilled promises you made to me," Norris wrote Mueller. "I now have a security clearance and receive regular briefings from the military and the FBI. This is extremely helpful and enables me to deploy resources accurately and efficiently." He added a hand-written postscript: "Your leadership is making a difference."

Norris was one of the police chiefs I interviewed after 9-11 who complained that the FBI remained uncooperative. Now, Norris has confirmed to me what he wrote Mueller, that the FBI's sixth director is the first to really change the bureau. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, in his second hitch heading the NYPD after running the U.S. Customs Service in Washington, told me, "Mueller is doing well, but he has an uphill job changing the culture of the FBI."

That "culture" was described to me by an NYPD veteran who asked that his name not be used: "The FBI has always thought it is superior to the local cops. The reason for refusing to share information was arrogance. That has changed some since 9-11, but it hasn't disappeared." This is a new, improving, though not completely improved FBI under Mueller.

The change is typified by the way Mueller reacts to criticism. When I wrote a column about the director's failure to respond to internal whistle-blowers and senatorial critics, he asked me in for a chat at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. When I criticized Director Hoover more than 30 years ago, he ordered the Washington field office to tap my home telephone (reported to me by an assistant FBI director, who said he overrode the illegal order).

Mueller also has deviated from the bureau's customary practice, which persisted long after Hoover, of insisting it could do no wrong. I had written that in ignoring complaints from Sen. Arlen Specter and whistle-blowing agent Coleen Rowley, it looked like the same old FBI. During our conversation, however, Mueller did not punch back.

The director told me that Specter was "absolutely right to take us to task for not responding earlier" to the senator. Mueller said he was "in the process of preparing a reply" to Rowley before she gave her complaint to two newspapers. Mueller is known to have a low opinion of Rowley, but he chose not to spar with Time magazine's person of the year. "I don't want to publicly reply," he told me.

Mueller did not pretend that the half-century of contempt for local cops -- especially the NYPD -- ended in a year and a half. The FBI's refusal to share its information continued even in New York City immediately after the 9-11 attacks when then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani raged at FBI officials. Having taken the oath seven days before the terrorist attacks, Mueller seemed powerless then.

"I think it's improved substantially since Sept. 11," Mueller told me, "but it's been slow in coming, and we're not where we want to be." Local police chiefs like Ray Kelly and Ed Norris have finally gotten security clearances, though Mueller admits "it took a while to sort it out."

Mueller had to virtually re-invent the FBI -- from installing a modern computer system to applying centralized decision-making. In setting a new bureau priority of protecting Americans from terrorist attack, Mueller changed its mission. "Prior to Sept. 11," he told me, "our focus had been too much on making cases as opposed to pulling in bigger pieces of information. Tying the points together would have been nice to have prior to Sept. 11."

In his posthumous autobiography (A Look over My Shoulder), longtime CIA Director Richard Helms describes his only meeting with J. Edgar Hoover in which the FBI director delivered a "45-minute uninterrupted history of the FBI in peace and war." Mueller meets every morning with CIA Director George Tenet (and President Bush). It's far from perfect, but it's not really the same old FBI.