The FBI's 'Vision Lady'
Maureen Baginski is leery of heights. Yet, every morning just before dawn, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's powerful intelligence czar wills herself to drive over a narrow, shoulderless, two-lane bridge across a river, part of a nearly two-hour commute from her home in Virginia to FBI headquarters in Washington. "When I cross it in the dark, my legs start to get rubbery," says Baginski. "But I tell myself I can't be that paralyzed, for Christ's sake. I've got to drive over the bridge!"
The resolve she gathers to cross the bridge is no less necessary when she arrives at the office. Because Baginski, an FBI outsider, has been tasked with pulling off what many believe to be mission impossible: ensuring that the hidebound FBI not repeat the sort of catastrophic intelligence failures that plagued the bureau prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. FBI Director Robert Mueller has proposed creating a new directorate for domestic intelligence within the FBI, with Baginski at its helm. And the stakes couldn't be much higher. Baginski's assignment is to change the FBI in a fundamental way, to turn it into an agency that systematically collects, analyzes, and disseminates intelligence. Not just to prosecute crimes after the fact, as it has done in the past, but to prevent future terrorist attacks on American soil.
The process has been nothing short of excruciating. Ultimately, the new directorate needs the blessing of Congress or the president. But Baginski has meticulously been creating the blueprint for it since May 2003, when Mueller named her to head a new office of intelligence in an effort to deflect looming criticism from the 9/11 commission. Since then, working with meager resources, Baginski, a 25-year veteran of the National Security Agency, has struggled to overcome institutional resistance. "I wouldn't even begin to pretend," Baginski told U.S. News in a rare interview, "that it's not hard."
Harvesting intelligence. Her supporters say that if anyone can do it, it's "Mo," as Baginski is known around town. A Russian linguist, Soviet expert, and career intelligence analyst, Baginski has earned kudos for trying to avoid the quick fix. Instead, she's trying to create a fundamental paradigm shift in how the FBI harvests its domestic intelligence and how the bureau recruits, trains, and retains its intelligence analysts--long viewed as such second-class citizens that they're often relegated to answering phones and even clearing trash bins. The 9/11 commission found that nearly two thirds of FBI analysts are unqualified for their jobs, and the good ones are raided by other agencies.
Baginski also wants to train new agent recruits to gather and use intelligence right from the beginning of their careers. And she wants intelligence gathered from all sorts of FBI cases to be funneled into the effort to prevent terrorist attacks. "She's embedding intelligence into the DNA of the FBI," says recently retired bureau executive Steven McCraw, who was Baginski's first deputy. Meanwhile, she's struggling to resolve the legal quandaries that stem from the FBI's dual obligations: to share information but to guard evidence for use in court cases. "She's invaluable," Mueller told U.S. News. "She has helped bridge the two disciplines of law enforcement and intelligence."