Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

November 21, 2001:
Fixing the Bureau

Suggestions from a long-time observer, Clifford Karchmer '68

By Tom Nugent

While half a dozen different congressional and independent inquiries press forward with detailed studies of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's performance in recent years, a Princeton-educated researcher on law enforcement management systems suggests that what the FBI needs most right now is a leader who can "change the management structure by changing the culture."

"I agree with many others that the Bureau needs comprehensive, broad-based reform of its headquarters management apparatus, and I'm convinced that Bob Mueller '66 was the perfect choice to make that happen," says Clifford Karchmer '68, the director of program development for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington-based law enforcement think-tank that routinely works with many Justice Department agencies.

"I am confident that the American people will be surprised at how successful Mueller is at fixing the managerial problems at the FBI," says Karchmer, who has spent 30 years advising local, state, and federal crime-fighters on improving their strategic and operational structures. "Mueller's performance as a U.S. attorney in two jurisdictions and as a powerfully effective administrator in the Department of Justice shows that he knows how to analyze ñ and then reorganize ñ bureaucratic systems that have become static and unresponsive.

"The FBI has done many things very well. They've done a terrific job ending traditional Mafia dominance of organized crime, for example. But what they need most right now is a dynamic manager ñ a savvy and sophisticated administrator who can upgrade their technology base and improve operating efficiency, even as he inspires morale and loyalty at every level of management. And that will be very difficult."

According to Karchmer, who has served as an expert witness on money-laundering enforcement before the President's Commission on Organized Crime, "The FBI's managerial leadership in the past has been drawn from some of the very best religiously affiliated schools, such as Georgetown University.

"But now they're getting [in Mueller] a new kind of leader at the Bureau ñ an Ivy Leaguer with the kind of intellectual credentials and activist resume they haven't often seen before. Will he be seen as an outsider? I don't think so, because Mueller has put in long hours on many Justice Department investigations, and he has taken the initiative to defend the Bureau when others were conspicuously silent. Moreover, he's also a decorated Marine, which the seriously patriotic Bureau agents respect. And everybody knows he's graduated from real-life trenches, first in combat as a platoon leader, and then as a federal prosecutor with an enviable track record. They also know what he did as a prosecutor in the Pan Am bombing case, in the Manual Noriega drug conspiracy case, and in a host of other high-profile cases.

"For all of these reasons, the rank and file FBI agents will grow to respect him, if large numbers do not already. My view is that Bob Mueller has a rare opportunity to accomplish true structural reform of the FBI, and I'm sure he's going to go after the job in customary Princeton fashion ñ which is to roll up your sleeves and then demonstrate extreme competence in the most self-effacing, intellectually unpretentious way."

Here are a few other suggestions from Karchmer, based on his three decades of working with the FBI on research and other projects involving several problems of mutual interest.

1.) Begin by reading some books about problems endemic to large, secretive public bureaucracies. You might start with Max Weber and Anthony Downs. And be sure to include James Q. Wilson's The Investigators, which contains one of the few on-target analyses of FBI procedures. I believe the answers to the FBI's internal problems lie in historical analyses of intelligence failures ñ not in re-examining J. Edgar Hoover's personal excesses. (One classic is the study of Pearl Harbor by the Wohlstetters. Another valuable document is Graham Allison's Essence of Decision, which focuses on the bureaucratic pathologies that prevent agencies like the FBI, CIA, and others from communicating on common problems.)

2.) Consider that most journalistic "analyses" of the FBI are devoted to completing any remaining deconstruction of J. Edgar Hoover that previous authors somehow missed. You won't find much objectivity here. Except for an autobiography written by one of Hoover's ex-aides, William Turner (My Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI), these books will probably not help you identify what is needed to fix the Bureau.

3.) But if you insist on reading the historical accounts of the FBI, at least commit to spending some quality time pondering why so much of what Hoover accomplished manages to endure. Shrinking or not, his legacy still inspires many agents. Why? Hoover managed to create a large, virtually corruption-free bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy that has withstood many of the partisan political forces of the times. Hoover really did understand how to motivate an enormous law enforcement institution to function according to prevailing public expectations of efficiency and effectiveness, and with a degree of quality control across the nation that is probably unequaled in the rest of the government. The point is not to find some pretext for praising Hoover, but rather to identify constructive ways to revive that quality control apparatus and make if work for the very different objectives that the FBI now must pursue ñ and not just to salvage its reputation, but quite possibly to save the nation.

4.) Tomorrow, convene an informal panel of respected, retired FBI division and section chiefs. Listen to the managers of diverse Bureau specialties: inspection, civil rights, national security, organized crime, etc. Ask them point-blank about inefficiencies they found but were unable to correct, and how they would recommend that you accomplish those changes today. In other words, ask them for a roadmap they have drawn mentally but dared not forward up the command chain. I think you'll be surprised at how insightful these ex-officials are and how well they've thought through the same problems you now confront. Reportedly, no former FBI director has ever tapped this resource of respected retirees. Can this "brain trust" help you implement and institutionalize your reforms?

5.) Starting next Monday, advocate for repeal of the post-Hoover law that mandates retirement at age 57. Although there are waivers here and there, this is the root of the "brain drain" that deprives the FBI of talented managers at the height of their service and maturity. This ill-conceived post-Hoover reform was intended to prevent the regrowth of old-boy inner circles. Unfortunately, this "reform" has managed to deprive the FBI of precisely the kind of seasoned managers that it needs, and has perpetuated a mid-career out-placement focus that shifts the attention of Bureau managers to high-paying private sector jobs at a very sensitive time in their careers.

6.) Reread the Congressional record surrounding the post-Watergate movement to enact an FBI Charter. The fact that Congress ultimately rejected a presidentially backed and widely popular (and very rational) statutory charter speaks volumes about the ability of one person ñ FBI Director William Webster ñ to build enough credibility so that critics became convinced that he was capable of rectifying longstanding abuses without the prodding of a new, highly proscriptive law.

7.) Work with Congress to transform the process of congressional oversight from an exercise that has naively second-guessed FBI administrators and erected an obstacle course of "don't you dare" proscriptions to a set of positive goals with which the nation can identify and you believe you can reach in your single ten-year term.

8.) Get your hands on the Presidential Transition Team briefing books for the FBI for the last four presidents. They should provide good catalogues of organizational issues and first drafts of marching orders. Compare those expectations to what eventually occurred, and I believe you will appreciate how critical events wound up short-circuiting the most well intended courses of action. Above all, ask yourself: "How will my tenure be different, when other directors of considerable talent and unquestioned dedication watched their own efforts fall short?"

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer and can be reached at "Tom Nugent" <paw@Princeton.edu>