Fixing the FBI
This man is pushing some of the biggest changes in the Bureau's History. Think he's a popular guy?
On a cold January day two years ago, FBI Director Robert Mueller strode into the executive briefing room of the bureau's state-of-the-art command center in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washing-ton. Mueller had invited reporters for a special demonstration of a supposedly revolutionary records-management software package called Virtual Case File. VCF, as it is known inside the bureau, was intended to allow agents in the 56 field offices, more than 400 smaller regional offices, and dozens of liaison offices at U.S. embassies abroad to share investigative leads and reports and connect to government terrorism databases quickly and efficiently. Dressed in his usual button-down white oxford dress shirt, Mueller delivered a bravura performance. There was only one small glitch, when the system crashed for a few minutes. The glitch, however, would prove to be an unfortunate omen.
Today, after nearly four years and $170 million, the Virtual Case File system has all but been junked. And despite a series of post-9/11 reviews of the FBI's anarchic computer systems--unworkable, antiquated machines that contributed to the bureau's failure to "connect the dots" before the terrorist attacks--there is no hope of fielding a replacement system for VCF for at least another 3 1/2 years. In a wide-ranging interview in his elegant conference room on the seventh floor of the Hoover Building, Mueller, a highly regarded former federal prosecutor, conceded that the VCF system was plagued by a series of management failures at FBI headquarters. "If you give me a criminal case, my area of expertise," he said, "I can sit down and tell where it's going to go and what the likelihood of winning a trial is. . . . [But] you put me down with a software package, given my background, I'm not going to be able to tell you how it's going to shake out."
The failure of the VCF system, not surprisingly, has raised questions among some of the FBI's congressional overseers and bureau watchers about whether anyone--even someone with Mueller's acknowledged credibility and commitment--can guide the FBI through the most wrenching changes in its nearly 97-year history. "That's an organization where the culture is very, very fixed, more so than a place like the Marine Corps," says Deputy Attorney General James Comey. "Unlike the Marine Corps, most people spend 30 years at the bureau. The culture sets like concrete over 30 years, and to change that is very, very hard."
Hard, even for a decorated ex-marine like Mueller. "I've come to find that one of the most difficult things one has to do," he said, assessing the challenges he has encountered since assuming the directorship just a week before the 9/11 attacks, "is to bring an entity through the development of a change of business practices."
Changing any large bureaucracy is difficult, but at the FBI it is especially so. Mueller's challenge is at once simple--and enormous. It is nothing less than the transformation of a big, tradition-conscious police agency (which was really an interlocking series of 56 powerful, quasi-independent fiefdoms) into a forward-leaning, fast-moving intelligence agency. Today, the premium is not so much on busting bad guys after they commit a crime but on spotting terrorists and stopping them before they attack. That's not just a whole new mind-set. It means creating a new infrastructure to assess threats, communicating that information rapidly through a far-flung network of agents, offices, and executives, and sharing it with analysts and operatives outside the FBI--all things the bureau has never done especially well.