Mission: Impossible?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is battling to transform itself in an age of technology and terrorism. It may be the toughest, most important change effort of our time.

Mission: Impossible?

After Zalmai Azmi joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as its chief information officer in 2004, he was understandably shocked to learn that the organization didn’t have a centralized budget for information technology. That explained why he, the top technology officer for one of the world’s best-known crime-fighting organizations, oversaw annual expenditures of exactly $5,800.


But that wasn’t the half of it.

He would come to find out that most FBI agents had no email. Or access to the Web. Or their own computers. Or, for that matter, a sophisticated computerized database to track and share casework. They could not get tech support after hours because the help desk at the FBI shut down each night at 7 p.m.

“We don’t have a great track record around here,” Azmi observes.

Azmi’s office is on the seventh floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, DC, the legendary concrete edifice that houses FBI headquarters. Half his space is outfitted with the standard appointments of an executive’s workspace–an expansive wooden desk, bookshelves, plaques. The other half, however, is plastered with oversized charts packed with marker-scrawled graphics and workflow arrows. It has the unbuttoned, organic look of a rescue effort in progress–which is precisely what it is.

More than five years after the 9/11 attacks spurred a top-to-bottom redesign of its mission and culture, the FBI is still battling to change itself–to adapt to the 21st-century world of technology and terrorism. It’s not just a matter of installing computers, which in any case has proven far from simple. The FBI must address the way its people are hired, managed, and trained. It has to fix the way they communicate and the way decisions are made. It has to remedy a balky, hierarchical structure that sometimes thwarts local action.

That is, the FBI must change nearly everything about itself.


It could be among the most difficult organizational reinventions of our time. It’s certainly among the most important: At stake is not quarterly profits and stock price, but the safety and security of America. The FBI is charged with protecting Americans from terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and specifically mandated to take the lead in matters of counterterrorism and counterintelligence. It’s that mandate that’s at the heart of the organization’s current reinvention effort, because the FBI was formed in a much different era to do a much different job.

Before 9/11 exposed a startling mosaic of operational failures, the FBI, with its 31,000 employees, 56 U.S. field offices, and 50 foreign outposts, had earned an unquestioned standing as one of the world’s preeminent crime-solving entities. Over the decades, its agents had successfully pursued countless bank robbers, narcotics traffickers, organized-crime kingpins, corrupt politicians, and serial killers.

The problem: Everything about the FBI–its organizational structures and processes, its incentive systems, its decision-making mechanisms, its culture–had evolved to support a mission of solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice after the deed. Today, the far more important mission demands that the agency gather intelligence and prevent acts before they occur. That new role requires different approaches to communication and coordination, different technologies, wholly different ways of thinking and problem solving.

People who know the FBI best–including many who’ve spent their careers there–would say that its culture, leadership philosophy, and links to the political arena make major change in “the bureau,” as it is also known, highly improbable. It is, they argue, just too entrenched, too bureaucratic, too rigid, too old, too slow to understand and execute the scale and sweep of change that needs to happen.

“It’s almost a total transformation of what the bureau does and how it does it. It’s staggering,” says Dick Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general who, at the request of Congress, is providing feedback and counsel on the FBI’s transformation. In an interview in his Washington, DC, office, Thornburgh praises the determination of FBI leadership to pull off the transformation. But he also hints broadly at an uphill battle. “The bureau has simply not been as attentive to management and strategy and planning as most organizations of its size and reach,” he says.

For decades, the FBI thrived with a compartmentalized, highly decentralized organization. When it came to snuffing drug traffickers or sniffing out political corruption, the talents, instincts, and efforts of a single agent in a field office always trumped the generic strategy devised by a detached bureaucrat back at headquarters.


But intelligence and counterterrorism require big-picture strategic planning, savvy resource management, coordination, and teamwork, as well as real-time, highly accessible flows of information. All of which have surfaced time and again, in numerous post-9/11 probes of FBI performance, as critical deficits.

And five years later, while Home Depot can tell you how many two-by-fours are sold by the hour and which stores are selling most, the FBI still largely relies on a paper-based system of records management and internal communication. And while its leadership has embraced some measure of strategic planning, it still lacks a comprehensive strategic document, a specific plan governing in measurable detail the massive reinvention it has embarked upon.

FBI director Robert Mueller is a figure as problematic as he is central to this change endeavor. Mueller, who took his job a week before the World Trade Center attack, is, by all accounts, a dedicated public servant and a bright, respected leader. His résumé combines partnerships at pedigree law firms–Hill & Barlow, Hale & Dorr–with notable public-service credentials: In the early 1990s, he ran the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Yet his most visible management experience before now was as U.S. attorney in San Francisco, heading a staff of 181 and a $21 million budget. Now, he’s leading a $6 billion organization with tens of thousands of employees all over the world. (The FBI declined requests for interviews with Mueller, among other key senior officials.) For everything he’s accomplished at the bureau in five years, the question remains: Is it enough?

Mueller has, experts agree, created the foundation for a markedly more effective counterterrorism entity. In print, speeches, and videotaped messages, he has communicated widely and repeatedly the need for a change in mission and culture, and the reason for that change. In one address last fall to business executives in Chicago, Mueller acknowledged the need to “chart a new course” and “establish a new mission and new priorities.”

“It’s all over the bureau literature,” says Paul R. Corts, a former assistant attorney general with the Justice Department who worked closely with the FBI for much of the past three years on management issues. “The word is out. Terrorism is the No. 1 priority, and intelligence is what the bureau is about. You’ve got to say it, say it, and say it again, and they’re doing it.”


Among other things, Mueller has dramatically shifted personnel and resources from the bureau’s traditional focus, fighting crime, to the new–counterintelligence and counterterrorism. He has increased the number of intelligence analysts, who traditionally have played second fiddle to special agents, from 1,023 to more than 2,200. He has raised the ceiling on their pay grade and established a first-ever analyst career track.

The director has demanded better communications with other federal intelligence agencies, as well as state and local authorities–a clear break from the past for an organization whose unofficial founder, J. Edgar Hoover, obsessed over secrecy and “close holds” on information. The number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, in which FBI agents work with federal, state, and local agencies, has tripled since 2001, from 35 to 101. Likewise, the number of linguists has nearly doubled to more than 1,400.

Mueller has signaled an open-mindedness to new perspectives that are decidedly at odds with bureau tradition. In the past year, he has met regularly with an advisory panel of 12 people mostly from outside the bureau, among them technology executive and investor Craig Fields and former CIO of Scott Paper Co. Darwin A. John. “These are some very smart people,” says Floyd Clarke, a onetime acting director of the bureau who sits on the team. “This is the first time in the bureau’s history that the director of the FBI has gotten this kind of counsel and feedback and guidance.”

Mueller also has recognized the need for a renaissance in managerial style and capability within the FBI, which is not known for either. He has sent hundreds of bureau executives to the weeklong courses Leading Strategic Change and Navigating Strategic Change at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School. Likewise, training has been bulked up across the agency: New agents now train for 21 weeks, up from 16, and counterterrorism/counterintelligence training has nearly doubled to 106 hours.

Within the FBI, that counts as a lot. It would in any entrenched bureaucracy. Not all the changes have been completely voluntary; Mueller is acting under significant political pressure for the bureau to get better, fast. But it’s a start, nonetheless.

The problem is, it’s just a start. Numerous congressional panels and investigative entities have produced a stream of reports that question the FBI’s actual progress. And this is the heart of the matter: When a capable, change-minded leader meets a calcified, reluctant organization, progress becomes a matter of daily battles of inches gained, conceded, and then regained.


“The FBI has no corner on the market of people being resistant to change,” says John Miller, the FBI’s assistant director of the office of public affairs. “We don’t recruit people from Planet Perfect; we recruit human beings. But in five years, we’ve changed dramatically, and we’ve done it while we’re doing our job of protecting the American public.”

The evidence on that, though, has been mixed. In one recent report, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General–the entity charged with keeping closest tabs on the FBI–noted a flaw in the protection strategy for the nation’s 360-plus seaports, considered among the most vulnerable entry points for weapons of mass destruction. The OIG team found that one FBI field office, tasked with overseeing six significant seaports in its territory, had only one maritime-focused agent, while another with no strategic seaports was staffed with five. The FBI declined to comment.

Another report cited allegations by a contract linguist and translator named Sibel Edmonds. Edmonds expressed serious concerns to the OIG about mismanagement of the FBI’s critical foreign-language translation program. Investigators dismissed some of Edmonds’s charges as unsubstantiated, but concluded that many were legitimate and held potentially damaging consequences for both the FBI and national security. (The agency terminated Edmonds’s contract and issued a press release saying it would investigate the matter.)

Such incidents in themselves represent tiny pockets of concern. But they also hint at what Mueller is up against. To get the bureau’s thousands of people to think and act differently, he has to clear away old baggage and old ways of doing business, including a decades-old organizational practice of shoot-from-the-hip, small-picture strategic planning.

Harvard Business School professor John Kotter has been studying organizational change for two decades, examining more than 200 major initiatives. In that time, he has identified eight core factors that can unhinge a change mandate. One, he says, is a failure to remove the old barriers that prevent people from acting in new ways. To some critics of the bureau, that’s exactly what the seaport-protection gap and the Edmonds case suggest.

“Even when you can get people all pumped up about the ‘new’ and they understand what’s needed and why, all people need to do is hit the same old barriers about four times and their enthusiasm drops like a rock,” Kotter says.


Randolph Hite has observed and studied the FBI for years as a senior staffer with the Government Accountability Office. He sees steps in the right direction but likens the effort to the organization’s having to train for and run a marathon. “You need leaders who are focused, attentive, and committed–and I haven’t seen anything over there that leads me to believe these fellows are anything but that,” Hite says.

“But it’s too early. You’re asking them to operate in a whole different way. You’re trying to accomplish this transformation in an environment that’s moving constantly. It’s as if you’re changing tires on a moving car and you need to upgrade the vehicle you’re traveling in and the terrain you’re on is dicey and unstable.”

In all the examinations by the many commissions and panels dispatched to suss out the 9/11 intelligence failures, no issue attracted as much concern and criticism as the state of the FBI’s information technology.

On September 10, 2001, the FBI’s 11,200 agents, if they had computer access at all, still used 1980s-era IBM 386 desktop computers. If an agent used the Web, it was via a dial-up connection. In the New York field office, the office most responsible for counterterrorism investigations prior to 9/11, 25 agents shared one secured phone line.

Even now, the main database available to agents–the Automated Case Support system–is governed by a paper-laden process that requires agents to write reports and official documents, print them out, and fax or mail them overnight to clerks who enter the documents’ contents by hand into a system run by a mainframe computer. It was into this obsolete system that the now-famous “Phoenix memo,” linking Arizona flight-school students to Osama bin Laden and a radical British Islamic group, fell in 2001. The type-written memo, dated July 10, did not get uploaded into the ACS system for 17 days. Then, a paper copy of the memo had to be mailed to headquarters. In the end, the “electronic” alert was not read by any of the senior officers it was meant for until after September 11.

As devastating an indictment as that was about the state of the FBI’s information technology, even more disconcerting was the announcement in 2005 that the Virtual Case File, the FBI’s $170 million IT fix, was being scrapped.


VCF was supposed to allow agents to communicate quickly with one another and share notes, reports, photographs, audio files, and other evidence in real time over a secure intranet–a must for counterintelligence and counterterrorism work. Mueller had hoped the new capability would fuel a revolution of dynamic, real-time interchange and collaboration between agents and analysts scattered around the globe.

Even by the standards of the bureau’s past technology failures, the VCF collapse was spectacular–not just for its scale but for its timing, four years past Mueller’s promise of reinvention. While there’s a lingering dispute between the FBI and the primary VCF contractor about who should shoulder how much of the blame, Mueller himself acknowledged in a painful what-went-wrong session before the Senate appropriations committee in 2005 that there was no master blueprint guiding the design of the system specifications. He confessed that the bureau lacked critical skills in computer software engineering and program management, and that his inexperienced staff had underestimated the complexity of the demands of the system.

Compounding the chaos, the project cycled through 15 key IT managers in 40 months, including 10 project managers. And in a two-year period, the FBI burned through five different CIOs or acting CIOs. The result: In a 2004 test, the FBI chronicled 400 problems with the software. And a year later, a three-month pilot run by agents and analysts in the New Orleans office sent Azmi back to Washington with the worst possible news: The system was still too complicated and fell far short of what agents needed.

In the past two years, Azmi has made progress, including the purchase and installation of more than 30,000 personal computers and other hardware. But “a lot of work remains to be done,” he says. He’s attempting to develop basic IT policies, an enterprise architecture, a portfolio-management strategy, and a strategic plan, all of which the agency has simply never had–even though federal law mandates it. Only recently has he managed to identify all of the IT projects and assets that exist throughout the far-flung organization, no simple task given the history and degree of decentralized decision making.

Today, every agent and analyst finally has a computer, email access, and an ability to conduct specific queries through the Investigative Data Warehouse, a tool developed in 2004 that is a collection of 53 informational databases with a half-billion investigative records. “What we don’t have,” Miller acknowledges, “is an across-the-board paperless case-management system that works across all three classifications [unclassified, secret, and top secret] … a system where you can move through all of the FBI systems with speed and alacrity without leaving a single desktop.”

The FBI plans to replace VCF with a $425 million system called Sentinel. But that probably won’t be fully operational until December 2009–and in two audits, the Office of the Inspector General pinpointed a number of early concerns. It raised questions about the bureau’s ability to migrate all of its current data to the new system. It wondered whether the process used to estimate Sentinel’s cost was valid, and questioned the lack of contingency planning. The project manager at Lockheed Martin, Sentinel’s contractor, has expressed concern about whether the FBI’s information-technology network will be able to bear the new load.


Which is to say, it’s hardly a sure thing.

Harvard’s Kotter suggests another key axiom for change crusades: Leaders must provide enough visible, unambiguous short-term wins in mission-critical areas to persuade skeptics and marginalize cynics. “These are concrete successes,” Kotter says, “ones that an objective group of people would agree are clear evidence of progress.” So when VCF toppled in early 2005, the damage wasn’t just measured in the loss of much-needed technology. The failure of the much-anticipated project also compromised Mueller’s effort to convince people, inside the organization and outside, that change really was possible.

Here’s a barometer of the mood within the bureau. Since 9/11, seven different executives have headed counterintelligence. In the administrative-services division, senior managers have resigned or been reassigned regularly, their tenures ranging from 7 months to 21 months. Within the key mid- and upper-level management ranks in investigations, the average tenure is about 14 months.

While some turnover can be healthy–a sign itself of constructive change–the FBI’s hemorrhaging of talent over the past five years has worried Congress and the bureau’s many overseers. “The turnover has definitely hurt accountability and effectiveness and the pace of reform,” says Glenn Fine, who as the Justice Department’s inspector general has assessed and reported to the attorney general on the FBI’s performance for nearly a decade. “We’ll deal with a certain individual on an issue, and then six months later, we’re dealing with another individual, and then six months later, another.”

There’s a tapestry of explanations for the frenetic turnover. It’s surely a function of the mandatory retirement age of 57, for one thing–instituted at a time when it was thought agents should be “young and vigorous.” These days, too, FBI executives can attract rich pay in the private sector for their expertise in security. Former agents and executives say that stress and burnout, especially since 9/11, has only fueled the phenomenon.

The good news: The quality and quantity of the agency’s new job candidates has never been higher. In the year before 9/11, the FBI attracted 7,100 applicants qualified to become special agents. A year later, it got 64,000. Today’s candidates for intelligence analyst jobs are far more likely to have advanced degrees and experience in foreign languages and cultures than before 9/11, the bureau says. “For every [FBI] executive who’s left for double and triple their salaries, we have people who’ve come here whose salaries are cut in half or thirds,” Miller says.


Great–except that the bureau’s hiring and training systems are overwhelmed. The hiring process is cumbersome to begin with, requiring dozens of steps and nearly 10 months on average to fill each position. Once on board, new recruits are shipped to a training center, at the FBI’s famous Quantico Academy in Virginia, that is badly in need of renovation and simply hasn’t been able to easily accommodate the growing numbers.

What’s more, the bureau’s increasingly better educated employees come with much higher expectations about the organization and their opportunities. A recent Justice Department survey of the first few waves of intelligence analysts hired since 2002 hinted at troubling levels of job dissatisfaction. One out of every three of the most-recent hires reported that they intended to leave the FBI within five years; only 16% of all analysts hired since 2002 said they were “very likely” to stay in their jobs for the next five years. The FBI says the integration of its new analysts is a work in progress, and that it has held town-hall-style meetings recently with analysts to understand their concerns and ideas.

Among the most praised of Mueller’s actions so far was his recruitment in 2005 of British Petroleum executive Donald Packham as the FBI’s chief human resources officer. Besides marking a rare grab of a top executive from the private sector, it signaled the importance of the bureau’s talent and of the intent to invest in hiring, training, and development. Not a moment too soon.

Making change, Kotter observes, comes down to this: understanding the awesome power of tradition. “Leaders underestimate it, and they don’t find enough ways to bar the old culture from seeping into the new,” Kotter says. “The bigger the organization and the older the organization, the tougher it is.”

Troubling anecdotes continue to surface at the bureau. Outside auditors, for example, have found that the process around translation of electronic surveillance and intercepts–a critical step in effective counterintelligence and counterterrorism–takes up to three months, far longer than the FBI’s post-9/11 internal policies were supposed to allow. The FBI says that it constantly reprioritizes backlogs in translation and interpretation, but that it never fails to review materials in its highest priority cases.

“The FBI’s shift to a counterterrorism posture is far from institutionalized, and significant deficiencies remain,” the 9/11 Commission concluded. “Reforms are at risk from inertia and complacency.” Part of the challenge facing Mueller is rooted in the FBI’s vast bureaucracy, laced with the qualities that make bureaucracies what they are. It possesses impressive pools of talent, determination, tools, and dedication. But it tends to be a risk-averse, plodding, highly politicized work environment with a bunker mentality that doesn’t easily absorb outside criticism and input.


What makes the change effort especially difficult, of course, is the pressure of operating under intense public scrutiny. “Listen, what the FBI is trying to do can be done, but it’s truly hard to grasp the significance and visibility of what they have to do–and they have to do it under the gun,” says Warren Bennis, the author of Leaders and distinguished business professor and change expert at the University of Southern California.

In his Chicago speech last fall, Mueller seemed almost wistful when he referred to the days when the FBI took on infamous gangsters such as Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger–“G-men battling notorious criminals.” Back then, the FBI’s leaders more easily knew where they stood. Today, “it’s difficult to measure progress in counterterrorism. We cannot post a profit. We cannot quantify freedoms protected and lives saved. We cannot measure the absence of damage.”

Ultimately, it’s not easy to gauge the pace or degree of cultural change, or the lack thereof. And the mechanics of that change are part science and part art. You have to know what to look for, what questions to ask, which answers are the telling ones. You can only hope that you’re doing the right thing, and doing it in time.

J.J. Brazil is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who lives in southern California.