FBI and Law Enforcement

Last updated January 1, 2006
7:00 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Homeland Security

This publication is now archived.

Has the FBI’s mission changed since September 11?

Yes. In the aftermath of September 11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation—the investigative arm of the Justice Department and the lead federal agency for counterterrorism—made preventing terrorist attacks its top priority, replacing the bureau’s old focus on pursuing white-collar criminals, bank robbers, and drug traffickers. One of the largest overhauls in the bureau’s history was announced in spring 2002 amid mounting complaints from FBI insiders, Congress, and experts that the bureau had mishandled key leads before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. FBI director Robert S. Mueller III has said that part of the September 11 plot might have been uncovered if federal agencies had communicated better and properly evaluated the clues at hand.

The 9/11 Commission report found that the intelligence community had a “significant increase” of intelligence information regarding Osama bin Laden and a potential terrorist attack, but that the community “too often failed to focus on that information and to capitalize on available and potentially important information.”

Did the FBI miss clues prior to September 11?

Yes. In a May 2002 memo to Mueller, Coleen Rowley, a senior agent in the FBI’s Minneapolis office, accused FBI headquarters of having repeatedly refused requests she had made before September 11 for a warrant to wiretap and to search the computer and belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “twentieth hijacker.” Moussaoui aroused suspicions while training at a Minnesota flight school and was arrested in August 2001 on visa violations. A search of his computer after September 11 revealed data about the cockpit layouts of commercial aircraft and phone numbers that could have led authorities to the plotters.

The FBI also failed to connect the Moussaoui case to a July 2001 memo from a Phoenix FBI agent, Kenneth Williams, warning the FBI that Arab men who might be linked to Osama bin Laden were training at a flight school in Arizona. FBI headquarters rejected his proposal to investigate other flight schools, reportedly because of a lack of resources.

Beyond ignoring warnings from the field, the FBI has also been criticized for failing to coordinate with the CIA. The FBI now admits it could have done better. The 9/11 Commission’s report sharply criticized intelligence agencies for failing to address the terrorist threat before September 11, revealed new findings about clues that the agencies ignored, and offered nineteen recommendations for improving their intelligence capabilities.

Why did the FBI miss clues about the September 11 plot?

Experts say the bureau’s failure to act on information from its field offices is not surprising. Before September 11, the FBI was configured as a law enforcement agency charged with solving crimes that had already taken place, not as an intelligence force aimed at preventing attacks. Field agents didn’t have the power to begin investigations without evidence that a specific crime had been committed or was going to be committed—and even then they had to wait weeks or months for approval from headquarters before proceeding.

Did the FBI and the CIA cooperate effectively before September 11?

No. The FBI and the CIA failed to share key clues before the attacks. Experts say that fundamental cultural differences and turf wars have long hindered cooperation between the two agencies. The CIA was established in 1947 to collect intelligence abroad, and its charter forbids it to conduct investigations inside the United States. Instead, it passes on intelligence relevant to domestic concerns to the FBI, which handles domestic investigations. Some experts say that the United States often fails to anticipate cross-border threats like terrorism because it lacks a single agency devoted to collecting, analyzing, and piecing together both domestic and foreign information.

Two new agencies have recently been formed in an attempt to solve this problem—the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), the head of which will report to the director of central intelligence, and the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate (IAIP) within the Homeland Security Department. Both will analyze and coordinate intelligence gathered by the CIA, FBI, DHS, and DOD, and assess threats to homeland security.

In addition, President Bush asked Congress to approve the creation of a new post for a National Intelligence Director—a stand alone post that acts as the primary intelligence officer for the President. John Negroponte, former ambassador and United States permanent representative to the UN, was sworn in as the director in April 2005.

What FBI reforms have been proposed?

In December 2001, Mueller announced a plan to reorganize FBI headquarters that included the modernization of obsolete information systems and the creation of new divisions to emphasize counterterrorism, counterintelligence, cybercrimes, and communications with state and local law enforcement. But as criticism mounted in the spring of 2002, Mueller announced more sweeping reforms, including plans to:

  • Hire 400 more analysts, including twenty-five analysts borrowed from the CIA.
  • Shift 480 agents from white-collar and violent crime investigation to counterterrorism.
  • Create an office of intelligence to gather, analyze, and share critical national security information.
  • Establish “flying squads” of terrorism experts based at FBI headquarters to provide intelligence support to the bureau’s fifty-six field offices.
  • Recruit fluent speakers of Arabic and other Middle Eastern and South Asian languages.
  • Create a national joint terrorism task force to help the FBI coordinate its efforts with the CIA and other agencies.
  • Improve strategic analyses of terrorist groups and networks, including looking more closely at their finances and methods of communication.

Shortly after September 11, the passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act enhanced the FBI’s power to intercept communications and collect information during terrorism investigations. In May 2002, former Attorney General John Ashcroft revised the bureau’s investigative guidelines to allow field offices to open criminal investigations without first obtaining approval from headquarters. Agents were also given broader powers to surf the Internet, monitor religious and political groups, and visit houses of worship without evidence that a crime has been committed.

Will the reforms help prevent terrorist attacks?

It’s hard to say. Some experts say the FBI has been given tools that will let it do its job. Others say the bureaucratic and cultural issues that plague the FBI and its relationships with other federal agencies—as well as local law enforcement—are too large to be addressed by quick reforms. Substantial numbers of high-ranking FBI officials quit in the wake of 9/11. The resulting labor shortage may hinder reform efforts—as may old habits. According to Jonathan Winer, a former State Department official, the largest problems at the FBI (besides a shortage of resources) are an unwillingness to share information with other agencies, poor communication within the bureau itself, and a lack of trust. Experts say it’s too soon to tell whether the new reforms can help build a FBI based on cooperation, where agents are rewarded for taking risks and thinking creatively.

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Homeland Security


Top Stories on CFR

Pharmaceuticals and Vaccines

Only a year after the new coronavirus emerged, the first vaccines to protect against it are being administered. But production challenges, vaccine nationalism, and new virus strains are all presenting hurdles.

U.S. Foreign Policy

U.S. interests argue for maintaining ties to Saudi Arabia despite clear evidence that the Crown Prince approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.


Violence continues to rage in Mexico more than a decade after former President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug cartels.