WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized the Federal Bureau of Investigation Wednesday for slow changes in managing terrorism intelligence and sharing the information.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told the committee that change is occurring in hiring and intelligence processes but that progress is slow due to the agency's increasing responsibility in terrorism investigations.
“Occasionally,I liken it to changing the tires on a car as it hurtles at 70 miles per hour down the road,” Mueller said.
Sen. Arlen Specter,R-Pa.,the committee chairman,criticized the slow pace,noting the high rate of job turnover at the FBI,vacancies in one-third of intelligence analyst positions and the failure of the Virtual Case File system,a computer database that has cost the government more than $170 million.
Sen. Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.,said that more than 8,000 hours of unexamined counterterrorism tapes concerned him and that the current average of 16 months to find and hire translators is too long.
Mueller said the agency has a system that ensures important tapes are examined within 24 hours. Many of the backlogged tapes contain scrambled electronic noise and obscure languages,he said.
And the FBI has hired 877 contract linguists since Sept. 11,2001,after filtering through 50,000 applications,Mueller said.
Leahy also questioned the effectiveness of the no-fly list,which included the name of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,D-Mass.
“Sen. Kennedy has been stopped numerous times when going on the same flight he's been taking for 30 years,” Leahy said. “That doesn't give me much confidence.”
Mueller said the FBI will be able to better manage the list with a new electronic database called Sentinel. He said,however,that it will be four years before the system is ready,and there are no cost estimates for the database because such figures might interfere with the contract bidding process.
Although there have been delays in the project,Mueller said the FBI is now moving forward with contract negotiations for Sentinel.
Many of the senators' complaints stemmed from a Department of Justice Report,written by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine,who also testified.
Mueller deserves credit for opening the FBI to wider outside scrutiny,something that has been a change from the “previously insular attitude,” Fine said. But not everyone in the FBI has been as willing to change,he said.
Mueller asked the committee to provide the FBI with the power to issue subpoenas for counterterrorism purposes.
“As you know,the FBI has had administrative subpoena authority for investigations of crimes ranging from drug trafficking to health care fraud to child exploitation,” Mueller said. “Yet,when it comes to terrorism investigations,the FBI has no such authority.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein,D-Calif.,said she does not support such subpoena power without proof of emergency or approval from a U.S. attorney.
All of the senators said they wanted better communication within the FBI and between the FBI and other government officials,including members of Congress. The FBI oversight hearing was the first of a series examining the agency's changes.