By Sarah Maksoud, Reporter
The 9/11 Review Commission released a declassified report on Wednesday, evaluating the FBI’s counterterrorism performance.
The commissioners—Dr. Bruce Hoffman, Edwin Meese III, and Timothy Roemer—came to the conclusion that the FBI “has made measurable progress over the past decade” in developing its intelligence capabilities, but that progress in building key intelligence programs” is lagging behind marked advances in law enforcement capabilities.
The commission was tasked by congress in 2013 with evaluating the FBI’s improvements in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11. In particular, they looked at how well the FBI implemented the recommendations made by the commission that studied the 9/11 attacks. In 2002, the 9/11 Commission found that the FBI needed to evolve organizationally in order to strike a balance between its crime-fighting role, and the need to prevent terrorist attacks through intelligence gathering.
The GSSR sat with Dr. Hoffman to discuss the commission, the conclusions of their report, and his experiences as part of the panel.
Q: How did the commission come about?
On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Congressman Peter King tried to convene—and tried to have Congress to approve—a follow-up to the 9/11 Commission, but it didn’t work. After the Boston Marathon Bombing, Congressman Wolf, who recently retired, decided that it was really time to take a look at how successful and effective the FBI had been in implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, and how well positioned the FBI was to cope with or to address the emerging problems of terrorism and radicalization.
Q: How did the commission’s work progress?
Slowly. The congressional legislation authorizing the commission had been voted on in March 2013. I was first approached in August 2013, and then sequestration intervened. The Commission wasn’t actually organized to meet until the last day of October 2013, and the Commission didn’t really get up and running until January 2014. So it was a long process just to get started. And then once the commissioners were settled, we had to hire an executive director. And once we had the executive director on board, we had to recruit staff, which took months. We had to conform to federal hiring laws, and people had to have very specialized clearances because of the work that would be involved.
Q: What were the general conclusions the commission came to?
In general terms, the FBI has made a lot of very important changes, and that it’s really transformed itself from what it was 20 years ago, when it was an almost entirely law enforcement agency, to one that is intelligence driven. But the threat is changing and multiplying and evolving so quickly that the FBI has to move faster. Just given the fact that the CIA and the National Geospatial Agency evolved and underwent massive reforms over the past year shows how all intelligence agencies are having to respond to this evolving threat. So I think for us, given that the new FBI director has only been in place for a bit more than a year—and that the FBI is now facing even more complex challenges of cyber terrorism and cyber-crimes, as well as radicalization, and the recruitment of foreign fighters—that the timing of the commission was very propitious.
Q: How did the FBI receive the commission’s report?
Really well. They didn’t make one change at all to the findings and recommendations, which were extremely pointed. Just on the question of intelligence analysis, and the intelligence analysts, where there has always been a gulf in the FBI’s culture between special agents and intelligence analysts, we have eleven significant recommendations just on that alone. No organization likes to have outsiders come in and put them under a microscope. The FBI was immensely supportive; they really changed very little in the report and in fact only classified slightly more than a dozen pages in a nearly 130 page document. There had to be some redactions because of sources and methods, in terms of intelligence gathering, and how the FBI operates that might assist our enemies. But the things we had to remove for classification reasons were really very minor in terms of substance, and very modest in terms of number. The Director has been extremely supportive. Changing practices in any bureaucracy is difficult, but I was really impressed with their response. Indeed, there’s a lot of material that’s critical in there that they’ve not contested.
Q: What was the most interesting aspect of the commission?
One of the interesting things about the FBI effort was that we were able to call on the research and analytical skills of both current SSP students and SSP alumni. At a time when we were having this delay in getting people on board, so that we could keep moving forward we were very fortunate to be able to use an SSP student to provide absolutely critical research assistance, using open source materials that became the foundation for a lot of the much deeper dives we took into the classified materials. One of the most effective members of the entire commission staff was an SSP alum, who had in fact also been one of my students as well as my research assistant, and now works in the US government. This person’s contributions were really immeasurable. The other commissioners said that she was the single most pivotal figure amongst the commission staff. This is what SSP students are both trained to do and are capable of, and is why they are so successful. You know, you would expect this coming from the Director! But this is coming from me wearing my commission hat, and the other commissioners also agreed. There were some extraordinary contributions made by the SSP student and SSP alum involved in the project—as well, of course, by the rest of the staff.
Q: What did you take away from the experience?
I think until you actually live it and experience it, it’s hard to appreciate is how difficult it is to achieve any kind of change in a bureaucracy—even needed change. It’s not just demonstrating the need for it, which people will recognize, but actually getting the entire bureaucracy to move. And the trouble is that it’s not just one office you’re dealing with. It’s as much the people on the frontlines, as it is dealing with the human resources people. It’s dealing with the mid-level managers as well. Making that compelling case for change is one part of the process, but the implementation is always the toughest part. You could have great ideas, but how you obtain buy-in and actually implement them is the challenge. I think in the FBI, they are extremely fortunate that the director is enormously open-minded. You get the impression that he really cares about the bureau and about its employees, and really takes his role very seriously in protecting the people of the United States. But even the director can’t just snap his fingers and say “change.”