Finally there is a president willing to exert some influence over the FBI, at least when it comes to intelligence, if that isn't an oxymoron. Throughout most of its modern history, the FBI has managed to avoid most calls for reform even when they made sense and particularly when they came from the White House.
In fact, those in the bureau's hierarchy assigned as White House liaison and who got too close to past presidents frequently found themselves in hot water with the boss, J. Edgar Hoover, especially during the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. And although George W. Bush has made it clear that he has been unhappy with the nation's intelligence failures before and after 9/11, both of his attorneys general since then, John Ashcroft and now Roberto Gonzales, have been as careful as all the rest when dealing with the lead agency in domestic counter-intelligence.
So when Congress established a new director of national intelligence with sweeping powers over the CIA and presumably the Pentagon and Bush promised him undiluted support, it still wasn't apparent where the FBI fit. Would John Negroponte, the new director of national intelligence, have the authority to crack the vaunted wall of independence that Hoover managed to build up and the bureau has been able to maintain through the decades even after his death and no matter who was serving as director?
Well, the answer seems to be emphatically in the positive with the president announcing that Negroponte would have a hand in selecting a powerful new intelligence director of the FBI who also would be the third man in the bureau's pecking order. It was the second major victory by Negroponte who already has been able to fend off efforts from some turf-conscious congressmen to weaken his authority when it came to personnel and money decisions. If these moves can be counted as serious, he will avoid the ignominious fate of past czars over major areas from intelligence to drugs to energy. Most never were heard from much after confirmation.
The bureau's reaction to this should give some indication about how it regards the news. It initially had nothing to say. There seems to be little doubt that many of its minions see this as the camel's nose under the tent. Can the rest of the beast be far behind? And before anyone gets too excited, what about the FBI's legendary influence on Capitol Hill? For the time being at least, the Oval Office is calling the political tune here and it is one that has been too long in coming.
The president's decision, of course, was bolstered by a litany of horror stories about FBI incompetence in domestic intelligence issued by one commission after another and ending with the Justice Department's inspector general recently citing five different instances when the bureau could have stopped the attack on America. In the midst of all this, it was revealed that the bureau had blown $170 million taxpayer dollars on a computer software package that didn't work.
However, the major obstacle to successful intelligence operations, breaking down the FBI's law enforcement culture to shift its main focus, has been almost impossible. The president's own panel of experts recently added its voice to the call for drastic measures to alter the FBI including the possibility of relieving the bureau of the intelligence assignment, citing its inability to bring about the reforms it has promised.
The cumulative impact of all this seems to have given the president the ammunition he has needed to support Negroponte, whom he clearly sees as capable of rebuilding the overall intelligence apparatus so badly impugned the last few years.
While FBI Director Robert Mueller appears still in good graces at the White House despite all this, he can't be happy to be the first director to have to cede some of his authority to someone outside the Justice Department where attorneys general have been rubber stamping FBI demands forever. Probably unhappier still will be the real powers in the FBI, the special agents in charge of the 56 field offices. Hoover probably would have found a way to sidestep this dilution of authority. He managed to do that a number of times including when he kept his agents out of drug enforcement, where corruption and failure were built into the system, despite demands from Congress and several White Houses.
When it is all said and done, this president has taken a big step others have avoided.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.