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Sept. 11 commission strongly backs FBI, director

Mueller is making the right changes, panel chair says

WASHINGTON -- Few agencies received more criticism than the FBI for missteps made before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but now the bureau is getting good reviews for reforms undertaken by director Robert S. Mueller III.

The Sept. 11 commission said Mueller is doing what is necessary to address problems that may have prevented detection of the hijacking plot.

''We think he's doing exactly the right thing," said Thomas Kean, commission chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey.

In a major victory for the FBI and Justice Department, the commission came down firmly against creation of a separate domestic intelligence agency and opted instead to send a ''stay the course" message of support for Mueller.

The strong backing for the FBI was surprising, considering the criticism the bureau endured after the attacks. Of the 10 missed ''operational opportunities" identified by the commission to potentially disrupt the plot, at least three fell squarely on the FBI. They include not recognizing that flight student Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota might be connected to intelligence indicating an Al Qaeda plot involving hijackers, and not quickly locating two soon-to-be hijackers the government knew were in the United States.

In addition, the commission said the FBI suffered from a broader inability to ''link its collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities."

Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a counterterrorism official at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, said: ''It is mystifying that the commissioners didn't take this on. Mueller has been responsive to the things they were interested in. He has managed to finesse the situation."

Since the attacks, Mueller has made counterterrorism the FBI's paramount mission. He has put in place several initiatives to strengthen the FBI's intelligence capabilities and methods of sharing information, both internally and with other government agencies.

More than 1,450 FBI personnel work on intelligence in the 56 FBI field offices. Also, there is a new FBI intelligence service and an aggressive program to hire more intelligence analysts.

After last week's release of the Sept. 11 report, Mueller said he was ''gratified and encouraged" by the support. ''I am confident that we will successfully complete our transformation," he said.

The report said it would be a mistake to create a domestic agency for intelligence similar to the British Security Service, known as MI5. Such an agency, the commission concluded, could be more likely to violate constitutional rights and civil liberties, would take years to put into place, and would lack law enforcement powers needed to turn terrorism investigations into criminal prosecutions.

Mueller, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, and their predecessors in the Clinton administration all opposed creation of a domestic intelligence service, in part because it would duplicate FBI work.

The idea of a separate intelligence agency was pushed for months by Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the presumptive Democratic candidate for vice president. His running mate, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, chose not to endorse the proposal.

The commission said the FBI must not be allowed to revert to its old ways: closely holding intelligence for use in criminal prosecutions and rewarding agents more for making arrests than for keeping tabs on suspected terrorists.

''The new way of doing business has to be more than on paper," said Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''Operations from headquarters to the field must continue to transform to [ensure] terrorist attacks are prevented, not just investigated after the fact."

The commission said some FBI changes should carry the weight of a presidential directive or a law passed by Congress. In addition, the commission's proposed new direction of national intelligence, based at the White House, would have approval authority over the FBI's top intelligence official and also have some control over that piece of the FBI's budget. But overall, the Justice Department led by the attorney general would remain in charge of the FBI.

Congress is moving on some of the proposals. The spending bill passed by the House on July 8 and pending in the Senate, would provide $100 million above President Bush's request for more than 1,200 new FBI staff members.

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