Says Mueller: “Americans expect us to prevent the next attack.”
Someday somewhere, the homeland-security apparatus—the combination of the FBI and the CIA as well as US Customs, the Transportation Security Administration, and other federal, state, and local agencies—will fail again and another plot will succeed. More handwringing will ensue, and questions will be raised about the effectiveness of those agencies and everything else put in place since 9/11. An instructive story comes from Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas congressman who served as the first Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security. As he was starting his new job, he was told in a White House briefing that there were 1.3 billion US border crossings of goods and people a day. President Bush slipped him a note: “How do you like your odds?”
Today, seven years after the 9/11 attacks, Mueller says, “It’s an ongoing crisis. You can’t sit back and say we’ve won. There will be another terrorist attack, and inevitably they’ll find that we or the CIA or whoever could have done something to prevent it.” At that point, Mueller says, “the American people and others will judge” how successful the FBI has been in transforming its mission to face new threats.
The high priority accorded the terrorism threat isn’t without costs. The emphasis, agents and observers say, has cannibalized the FBI’s criminal division. The bureau has passed off to other agencies many of the traditional drug and bank-robbery investigations that are its bread and butter. That has caused hard feelings among many of the local police forces the bureau used to assist, and in some cases it has weakened ties with law enforcers around the country who serve as valuable intelligence gatherers.
To help “connect the dots,” the FBI has added thousands of analysts since 9/11 in hopes that they can wade through thousands of leads each day and paint a more complete picture of the world around the United States. Many people inside and outside of the bureau say much work remains. For one thing, the FBI’s culture still celebrates the individual agent, and many analysts encounter an attitude that says, “When are you going to join up as an agent?”
“The special agent is the hero of the FBI, but if you go to the domestic-intelligence side, the key player is the analyst,” Lee Hamilton says. “People have to know these ethnicities, these cultures, these languages.”
Mueller has been working on developing a dual-track recruitment, training, and retention program for both agents and analysts. “The special agent will always have a special place in the bureau,” he says. “We need to make sure that those without law-enforcement powers are valued for their contributions, too.”
On the FBI-as-a-Fortune-500-business front, one of Mueller’s biggest “gets” is Donald Packham, who headed human resources for the 50,000 employees of British Petroleum in the Americas. Packham, like Azmi, couldn’t believe the FBI’s system when he started. One section of the bureau recruited agents; another trained them; a third took over once they were officially agents. There were no clear career paths. Mueller saw that the bureau he wanted to build couldn’t work like that.
“He knew he needed to build an HR program to support the bureau in its new role,” Packham says. “Probably neither one of us had any idea what we were getting into.”
Packham has introduced systems common in the private sector such as “360-degree feedback,” designed career paths, instituted summer internships, and added independent promotion boards. “The director has tried to let the processes work,” Packham says.
The most controversial change within the FBI was enforcement, beginning in 2006, of a long-neglected “up or out” rule that forced supervisors after five years either to take a promotion or to return to being agents. Gone were the days when someone could serve for a decade or two as a supervisor in a specific office.
Mueller says two trends necessitated the change: First, the growing importance of counterterrorism meant headquarters had more jobs to fill—jobs that many agents weren’t interested in taking—and the bureau needed to free up management slots to promote new leaders. “You want to breed leaders, and you need spaces for them to move into,” Monaco says.
To hear critics—of whom there are many inside and outside the bureau—tell it, Mueller’s inflexibility on the five-year up-or-out rule has cost the FBI hundreds of top agents with service that totals centuries.
“I thought that was a tremendous mistake,” says Congressman Mike Rogers. “In the first go-round, they lost half of the management agents. Half! I don’t know how that’s a success.”
The policy is certainly helping to drive turnover: A USA Today study this year found that in less than two years 160 supervisors had left the bureau, 192 had returned to the ranks of agents, and 338 had taken promotions. Altogether, more than half of the FBI’s 56 domestic field offices have gotten new leadership in the past 19 months.
More than terrorism threats or other crises, Mueller says, the personnel decisions involving people in what he calls his “bureau family” keep him up at night—the lives changed by the up-or-out policy, the critical positions he needs to fill with the right leader or thinker, the people whose lives are on the line, watching and waiting for the next attack. “You need your best person in the best position,” he says. “Your first priority is the organization.”