Special Agent v. Analyst: Clashing Cultures At the FBI

on April 1 | in Homeland Security, Intelligence Reform

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 9/11 Review Commission released a tough report last month, indicating that even a decade and a half after 9/11, the Bureau still has difficulty transitioning from a law-enforcement agency to an integrated intelligence-focused one. While giving credit for making institutional changes over the last decade, the report noted the gulf between Special Agents and analysts remains wide, noting, “This imbalance needs urgently to be addressed to meet growing and increasingly complex national security threats, from adaptive and increasingly tech-savvy terrorists, more brazen computer hackers and more technically capable, global cyber syndicates.”

For over a hundred years, the FBI worked like this: a crime is committed, agents investigate the case, and the case is closed, hopefully, with an arrest. “Job well done,” a supervisor might say, slapping his Special Agent on the back, “…now on to the next case.” But after 9/11, the FBI was told to incorporate intelligence into their law enforcement world so the organization could better prevent another attack on the homeland.

The FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence was established in 2005, and after a decade, there remains ample room for major improvement. The FBI’s report criticized the Bureau’s lack of progress on this front, noting it “has made progress in building the framework to support its intelligence function but continues to lag in capability.” In addition to budgetary concerns, a cause behind the slow progress of the FBI’s analytic shop is that most law enforcement agencies — the FBI especially — are resistant to change, particularly systemic cultural change. And this is a major cultural shift.

The FBI faces a long road ahead. For example, the report indicates its intelligence analysts are not properly trained or promoted, as these individuals are generally perceived as support staff rather than equal partners to Special Agents. Investigators may take exception to the perception that analysts are intervening in their cases. The phrase “I’m not going to let a civilian interfere in my case” has probably been uttered many times in FBI field offices across the country.

Moreover, analysts neither possess guns nor badges, just brains and computers. This diminishes their status in the eyes of agents who build camaraderie and allegiance by training and working together in stressful situations. Law enforcement is well known for being a tight-knit club with limited membership, and it’s not always open to letting in “others.”

The core problem is that analysis and law enforcement are fundamentally different disciplines. The root cause may be generally explained as a conflict of the strategic objective of the analyst versus the tactical objective of the law enforcement official. Yes, there are some similarities between intelligence and law enforcement; for example, handling human assets is basically the same as running confidential informants for information gathering.

However, there are deep conceptual differences. Intelligence is typically part of a cycle while law enforcement is traditionally linear. Generally, an analyst’s main objective is to provide warning and strategic insights, which is essentially a proactive effort, while an agent’s job is reactive by nature. Agents are considered successful based on the number of cases they close while measuring analytic “success” can be far murkier and more complex.

Sometimes there is follow up in a criminal investigation, while sometimes there is not. Continuous examination and assessment of information is the basis of intelligence analysis while information in law enforcement is not always shared, and sometimes the choice to share relies on trust, not institutional mandates.

Even the CIA, the nation’s premier intelligence agency, continues to struggle with similar issues of distrust. At its conception, critics opposed to a civilian intelligence agency argued it would be too academic. For decades, CIA analysts and case officers have struggled to communicate with each other, which has been one of the drivers that has led to establishing fusion centers to better foster information sharing. Recently, CIA Director – and former analyst – John Brennan announced the Agency is moving towards further integrating operational, analytic, and other agency elements by establishing ‘mission centers’ in an effort to better confront the threats of the 21st century.

Hence, collaboration must be a central component of FBI intelligence reform if it is going to successfully adapt to future challenges. FBI leadership needs to elevate the cultural status of intelligence within the Bureau by fully implementing the Commission’s recommendations. Building institutional trust among FBI agents and analysts will be a tough — but not impossible — task, and fixing the issue should not have lagged on for a decade.

Like any good mixture of cultures, positive outcomes will flourish in an environment where analysts and special agents are equal partners in intelligence. I certainly hope the Bureau continues to make these hard-but-necessary cultural changes. After all, our nation’s security depends on it.

Nectaria Krokidis Gelardi previously worked as a CIA analyst and as a corporate security investigator focusing on emergency management and threat assessments. She is currently a Senior Intelligence Analyst at a New York area Police Department where she helped launch the civilian intelligence program. Nectaria is also an adjunct instructor in the Homeland and Corporate Security Program at St. John’s University. 

photo: These FBI employees are probably not analysts. (FBI)

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One Response to Special Agent v. Analyst: Clashing Cultures At the FBI

  1. […] FBI’s reluctance to change with evolving threats. Nectaria Krokidis Gelardi at Overt Action, writing on the FBI’s difficulty transitioning from a law enforcement agency to an agency focused on […]

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