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FBI-CIA Tensions Linger a Decade After CIA Warned of “Problems”

A 2001 report about the CIA Counterterrorism Center highlighted the two agencies’ contentious working relationship, an issue that still plagues them today.

The French say it like “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This week unfortunately has brought a fresh reminder—two, in fact—that the FBI and the CIA continue to struggle to get along, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks exposed a glaring—and deadly—lack of communication between the two cornerstones of the US national security apparatus.

A Washington Post story this week reports that the office of director of national intelligence, a post created after the September 11 attacks, has handed the FBI an “expanded role in coordinating the domestic intelligence-gathering activities of the CIA.”

Coincidentally, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released a trove of decade-old CIA documents dealing with the hunt for Osama bin Laden. While much of the media’s attention today has focused on the Counterterrorism Center’s budget woes before 9/11, one of the most striking documents is the CIA’s inspection report of its Counterterrorism Center from the summer of 2001 (PDF). Conducted while, unbeknownst to the agency, Mohamed Atta and the 9/11 hijackers were finalizing their plans to attack Washington and New York, the CIA inspector general’s routine investigation discussed the overall effectiveness of CTC. After generally giving the center good marks—despite its budget and staffing shortfalls—deep into the report, the IG raises the agency’s working relationship with the FBI, listed on an earlier page as one of its key relationships. “CTC described cooperative relations with the FBI,” the report said. “The growth in joint activities and cross assignments suggests that the relationship is now more institutionalized and less personality dependent.”

Yet, the report continues, “concerns still remain in both organizations about access to the counterpart’s mission critical information.”

Indeed, the most glaring example of the two agencies’ breakdown in communication was even at that point unknown: At a June 2001 meeting, CIA agents had lied to FBI agents regarding their knowledge of the whereabouts of two of the men who were to become 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

That breakdown—one of the best chances, if not the only one, that the US government had to stop or interdict the 9/11 plot—was a point of much teeth-gnashing afterwards. Along with all too many other examples, it catalyzed years of close coordination between the FBI and the CIA at the upper levels and more cross assignments between the two. Afterward, then-CIA director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller made very public efforts to show how they were on the same team.

Much has changed since 2001. It’s clear to most observers that the FBI and the CIA do have the best working relationship the two agencies ever have had. Since 9/11, more and more FBI agents and CIA officers have been detailed to the other agency; there’s more information sharing and more overall cooperation. CIA and FBI personnel work together on more task forces and share more information than ever before, according to dozens of interviews I’ve done over the past four years.

And yet tensions and rivalries persist.

Some of the tensions between the agencies is inherent—the two have different territories and different approaches. The FBI is supposed to be a domestic law enforcement agency, focused on federal criminal infractions leading to prosecutable court cases. The CIA is an international intelligence agency, focused on gathering actionable information to guide political and military decision-making. There’s a lingering unease both at Langley and at the Hoover Building that the other’s standards just aren’t good enough. FBI agents think the CIA isn’t discerning enough in its information gathering, too willing to accept assumptions and “what’s likely true.” And CIA officers, likewise, think FBI agents are too focused on “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Plus there’s the big one: The FBI is supposed to be domestic, the CIA international. The reality, again, is much more clouded than that. The FBI has hundreds of agents posted in some 70 countries overseas in varying levels of operational capability. Likewise, the CIA has a broad domestic network, focused on helping the agency gather information overseas. As the Post explains, “The National Resources Division, as this group is known, routinely debriefs executives, university officials, and other Americans who volunteer to share information gathered on their trips out of the country. The CIA is also allowed to approach foreign nationals in the United States and try to recruit them as spies upon their return to their home countries.”

Those overlapping responsibilities helped lead to the ODNI’s new directive. This week’s Post article includes an example of how the new ODNI is already stirring up trouble: “One former US official said senior FBI agents recently used a meeting with executives from major manufacturing companies on the West Coast to instruct them to cut off contact with the CIA. The FBI’s message was that ‘they were now in charge of relationships with the corporate sector, so the folks there should feel no need to deal with the agency,’ said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. The FBI agents apparently were not aware that a former CIA officer was among the executives in attendance.”

On page 47, the 2001 report says, “Problems persist and probably will never be fully overcome. A natural tension exists between the two organizations, deriving from their different missions, which can be negotiated but never eliminated.”

Sadly, more than a decade of history has proven that observation all too applicable.

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