The FBI's 'Vision Lady'
Baginski is now regarded as the FBI's third-most-powerful official, behind only Mueller and his deputy. "It's a sign of what an important player she is," says Deputy Attorney General James Comey, "that when the director, the attorney general, and I get our daily CIA threat briefings and then review the FBI threat information, she sits next to the director."
That Baginski, 49, has become so crucial to the bureau's survival is a classic inside-the-beltway tale of talent, luck, and sheer chutzpah. Petite and friendly, her warm voice a tad husky from smoking, Baginski is tough inside, say her colleagues. Her critics call her authoritarian. Baginski's career as an NSA signals intelligence analyst was happenstance. An authority on the obscure 19th-century novelist Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895), Baginski says her first love is Russian literature, something she realized wouldn't pay her bills. "The secret no one knows," says Baginski, "is that I applied at the FBI." But Baginski quickly changed her mind after realizing she wasn't willing to endure the long hours and endless relocations of a G-man career.
When Baginski joined the NSA in 1979, her first assignment was teaching Russian at the National Cryptologic School. Over the next two decades, she moved into top management posts, including head of the NSA's 24-hour watch center. From various perches, she responded to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but nothing quite prepared her for Sept. 11, 2001. That night, as Baginski trudged to the NSA parking lot and watched trucks placing concrete Jersey barriers around the perimeter, "I will confess to you to having a few tears," says Baginski. "I wasn't doing things about some far-off lands anymore. This was my own country."
Baginski says her career has been successful in part because she is an analyst by instinct, a "diagnostician of problems." And she's "no shrinking violet," she admits, when it comes to suggesting solutions. In 1999, Baginski coauthored a scathing report dissecting the NSA's decade-long computer, personnel, and code-breaking woes. Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA director, then decided to fix the problem by creating a new directorate for signals intelligence and naming Baginski as its chief. Baginski later earned the moniker of "the Vision Lady."
Last year, Mueller was also searching for a "vision," one that would prevent the 9/11 commission from recommending that the FBI's domestic intelligence mission be given to a new agency. His answer? Baginski. Impressed by Mueller's credibility and Baginski's intelligence savvy, the commission decided in July to leave domestic intelligence in the FBI's hands. "She knows that world very, very well, and she's leading the FBI to the promised land," Comey told U.S. News. "She's one of Bob's tugboats."
When Mueller recruited Baginski, she was actually contemplating entering the private sector. "She could have earned a million bucks," said senior FBI official Michael Rolince. "Instead, she inherited a million headaches." Even before she picked up the FBI lingo or understood the bureau's culture and mission, Baginski had to leap into action to establish enough credibility to convince the 9/11 commission that the FBI could effectively handle domestic intelligence. "The pressure that has been put on her to make this succeed, it's almost unfair," says Rolince. "If I were Maureen Baginski, I would have thought, 'If this is so important, why don't I have a hundred percent backing from a hundred percent of the people?' And even today, she doesn't."