News & Politics

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.

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

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

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

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
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
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.
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

Plus there’s the big one: The FBI is supposed to be
domestic, the CIA international. The reality, again, is much more
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

“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
recently used a meeting with executives from major
manufacturing companies on the West Coast to instruct them to cut off
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.