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FBI training struggles to keep up

In a classroom at the FBI Academy in Quantico, instructor Rodney Loose was trying to introduce the history of Islam to a new group of future agents. He had one hour.
Recruits at the FBI Academy arrest and handcuff a suspect at the Dogwood Inn in the academy's fake town, called Hogan's Alley.
Recruits at the FBI Academy arrest and handcuff a suspect at the Dogwood Inn in the academy's fake town, called Hogan's Alley.Jahi Chikwendiu / Washington Post
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In a classroom at the FBI Academy in Quantico, instructor Rodney Loose was trying to introduce the history of Islam to a new group of future agents. He had one hour.

The 50 men and women would be joining the ranks of an agency whose top officials have declared fighting terrorism to be its No. 1 priority. They listened intently as Loose rushed through his topics: Sunnis and Shiites, the Koran, Mecca and Medina, four-part Arabic names, and the five pillars of Islam.

"Can you tell us about sleeper cells?" a recruit asked.

"I'm sorry, I don't think we're going to have time to get into this," a frustrated Loose said. "I wish I had more time to go through this. But it's just not possible."

Since the FBI came under withering criticism for its part in the intelligence community's failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the bureau has added 37 hours of counterterrorism training at Quantico for new agents. But that represents just 5 percent of the curriculum, and only one hour is about Islam, Arabic culture and understanding the terrorist mind-set

With so little time, Loose could just make it through Page 7 of his 14-page handout. No time to discuss suicide bombers, Islamic extremism or terrorist psychology.

In a graduation speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point this May, President Bush declared: "We have transformed the FBI into an agency whose primary focus is stopping terrorism." But Loose's predicament goes to the heart of whether the tradition-bound bureau, famously resistant to change, has fulfilled that mandate.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, some of the FBI's harshest critics concluded that trying to restructure the agency was pointless and called instead for creating an entirely new domestic intelligence agency. But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III convinced Congress and the administration that the bureau should be the lead domestic counterterrorism agency, combining traditional law enforcement duties with the intelligence-gathering necessary to penetrate terrorist cells and prevent attacks. He promised the training would reflect that new role.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said the year after the attacks: "The FBI deserves a chance to get its act together." He added: "But their time to move from investigating Bonnie-and-Clyde-type crimes to preventing terrorist activities is getting shorter."

Last fall, the FBI granted a Washington Post reporter unprecedented post-9/11 access to a class of recruits as the students underwent 18 weeks of training at Quantico. Here, on a 385-acre portion of the giant Marine Corps base 40 miles south of Washington, is where 750 recruits this year will be imbued with the FBI's culture, tested by physical challenges and taught basic skills in a nationally renowned law enforcement program. Here, too, terrorism and intelligence experts say, is where the bureau must translate the rhetoric of its director and the president into a curriculum that prepares future agents for a new mission.

Teaching the past
Some changes in the academy's approach are evident. More recruits have advanced degrees and stronger backgrounds in science and computers. They no longer memorize the names of New York's five organized-crime families, and classes on the mob, health-care fraud and white-collar crime have been replaced by lectures and hands-on training in investigative techniques. The agents-in-training stay longer at Quantico than past recruits to take the week of new classes on terrorism and intelligence.

"It's way beyond what it's been in the past," said Keith Slotter, the academy's deputy assistant director for training. "We didn't have any intelligence training before 9/11."

But the majority of the 701.5 hours is devoted, as it has been for decades, to traditional law enforcement skills, a fact that is underscored by the constant sound of gunfire from more than a dozen firing ranges. In all, 114.5 hours of training are devoted to learning to shoot.

Additionally, 78 hours are dedicated to teaching arrest techniques and defensive tactics, and 36 hours to forensics. Recruits also undergo rigorous physical fitness tests, study law and ethics, learn to identify drugs, hone computer skills, and investigate a practice criminal case and present the evidence in moot court.

FBI officials say the academy is "minting" new agents who need basic skills to enforce more than 200 federal statutes covering such diverse topics as public corruption, bank robberies and the protection of bald eagles.

"We've got to do the same things the FBI has been doing forever and does very well," said Supervisory Special Agent John Kerr, chief of Quantico's physical training unit. "Look at the cases being made across the country, the same old-fashioned way. Interviews and informants on the street. Some of the rules have changed, but it's the same investigative strategy . . . It's really the same bureau. The same FBI."

To bureau critics, the approach is more appropriate for chasing John Dillinger than Osama bin Laden. They say the training shows that the FBI culture is still too focused on solving crimes after they occur and collecting evidence to support prosecution rather than working to recruit informants or develop intelligence about a terrorist cell before it can attack.

Domestic intelligence agency
"Chasing criminals, you have to be armed," said U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard A. Posner, author of "Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11." Posner supports the idea of creating a separate domestic intelligence agency like Britain's MI5, which last week uncovered a plot to blow up as many as 10 planes bound for transatlantic flights.

"You also have to know about bank robbers. You have to know rules of evidence. But there's this completely different job called gathering intelligence. That's snooping, not chasing criminals."

The FBI's new intelligence mission is similar to the CIA's, but at "The Farm," as the CIA's operations training center near Williamsburg is known, agents-in-the-making train for a year, focusing on how to identify, recruit and manage foreign informants with access to intelligence the agency wants. A separate track for operatives assigned to penetrate terrorist organizations is heavy on language and cultural indoctrination.

Thomas J. Harrington, deputy assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, called the anti-terrorism and intelligence training at Quantico "a work in progress."

"We are trying to upgrade it," he said. "But it takes time to get to the point where the instructors are as competent as we want them to be."

Daniel Coleman, until his retirement the FBI's foremost expert on bin Laden, said that counterterrorism is too complex a subject to be taught in much depth during basic training at Quantico, but that it should be taught by the FBI. "If they are going to be devoted to counterterrorism," he said, "there should be a basic counterterrorism school" after Quantico.

What additional training the FBI does provide is, as one official acknowledged, "somewhat ad hoc." Instructors from West Point help the FBI train some agents assigned to joint terrorism task forces, and there are conferences as well as some language training.

Harrington said the bureau is creating a more formal program in which agents who have been with the FBI for three years will specialize in an area, such as counterterrorism and intelligence, and receive more training. But Harrington said that a curriculum is not yet in place.

Training for analysts
The FBI has also been trying to upgrade training for analysts, who don't carry badges or guns or investigate cases but have the critical job of connecting bits of intelligence. Since last October, future analysts have attended a new five-to-nine-week basic training course at Quantico, a breakthrough for a group of FBI employees who have long felt like second-class citizens in the bureau's hierarchy.

In 2003, as the centerpiece of his effort to update the bureau, Mueller reorganized intelligence operations and began hiring analysts in unprecedented numbers. But there was no comprehensive intelligence training or system to support their work. Last year, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found that analysts were being assigned to escort duty, collecting trash and answering telephones -- and they were leaving in droves.

The training course at Quantico has graduated more than 650 analysts, joining the 2,000 analysts and 12,000 agents already in the field. But they train separately from future agents and have only one four-hour class together. The lack of classified computer access at the academy means they have to be sent to dorms at an adjunct academy 10 miles away so they can work on secure computers.

An obsolete computer system is also a problem for new-agents-in-training, or "NATS," as they are called at Quantico.

"That is one of the big frustrations here," said Supervisory Special Agent Karen E. Gardner, chief of investigative training at Quantico. "If the American people expect us to connect the dots, we've got to train to do it," she said. "We don't have the computer networks here to do that."

FBI officials said the bureau plans to build a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art intelligence center at Quantico equipped with secure classrooms and classified computers. But it won't be ready for eight years.

For now, agents attend classes in the academy's maze of aging buildings. They spend many days role-playing in "Hogan's Alley," a replica of a 1950s small town created by Hollywood set designers that Keith Slotter acknowledge "served us well for the bank-robbery scenario" but not so well for counterterrorism.

Past abuses
While some critics say that the FBI is not giving its recruits enough intelligence training to mold them into domestic spies, others caution that the agency's intelligence-gathering in the 1950s and '60s led to many serious abuses, including the wiretapping of civil rights leaders and the targeting of communists and any other groups that then-Director J. Edgar Hoover considered a threat.

Civil libertarians argue that the FBI's focus on law enforcement and the fact that it has to makes its cases stand up in court is a critical limitation on its power.

Fourteen hours of the new training is dedicated to teaching recruits about the Intelligence Information Report (IIR), a new form to write up raw intelligence with other agents, analysts and intelligence agencies. A reporter was not allowed to see some of the other new counterterrorism courses because the FBI said they were classified.

Gardner said the classes covered "Secret Squirrel stuff": the guidelines and regulations for doing basic paperwork on a terrorism case; terrorism financial networks; obtaining wiretaps through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; and using "national security letters," which give agents access to library, Internet, telephone and financial records without a subpoena.

The recruits also learn about the techniques used in several terrorism investigations, including "Operation Smokescreen," a cigarette-smuggling case that led to the breakup of a financing ring for Hezbollah.

‘Learn another language’
After Loose finished his class, D. Vincent Sullivan, another longtime agent, gave a quick lecture on building relationships with Arabs. Like the class Loose teaches in the history of Islam, it was limited to an hour.

Sullivan held up three recommended books, beginning with "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam."

The trainees laughed, but Sullivan was serious.

"Don't wait for the bureau to give you the information and understanding you think you need to do your job," he said. "Don't assume that if you need to know, we're going to tell you about it. Take courses outside the bureau, learn another language and read."

"When the next boom goes off -- and it will go off -- we will all be terrorism agents, so it behooves us all to have a minimum knowledge of the culture and history."

Staff writer Dana Priest and researchers Julie Tate and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.