The New Intelligence-Driven FBI
04/02/10 - With the leadership of almost every major FBI program seated around a conference table at FBI Headquarters and the top echelons of the Bureau’s three largest field offices appearing via remote television monitors, Director Robert Mueller arrived in shirtsleeves and got down to business.
The assistant directors in charge of the New York, Los Angeles, and Washington Field Offices, along with their top managers, were present—leaning forward, ready to field questions on how they are tackling the Bureau’s top priorities and their own most pressing threats.
The meeting is called a Strategy Performance Session, or SPS. It’s a management tool to drill down and identify how well a field office knows its territory and what its investigative strengths and weaknesses are. In the corporate world, the approach might help reveal inefficiencies and save money. For the FBI, finding intelligence gaps or discovering better methods could save lives.
The two-hour, semi-annual sessions—and the preparation leading up to them—can help reveal not only how much our 56 field offices know, but how they know it. What effective techniques can be adopted by other offices?
“That’s what we’re trying to test here: Do you understand the threat in your territory?” said Thomas J. Harrington, head of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch. Harrington helped develop the SPS program for the Bureau after the 9/11 attacks and the hearings that followed, which pointed to a need for a more strategic approach to threats. The SPS program is modeled loosely on a New York Police Department initiative called CompStat that uses metrics and frequent strategy meetings to measure results and accountability. In a discussion of financial threats, Director Mueller cut to the big picture. “How do we prevent a Madoff?” he asked, referring to the infamous Ponzi schemer. It’s a question the Director might get on Capitol Hill. It also illustrates the Bureau’s shift to a more threat-based approach. In the past, field offices might have described other Ponzi-related cases they were pursuing. Now they are surveying broader themes.
“The goal isn’t to review cases,” said Harrington, who leads the questions with the Director. “It’s to look at where you’re going and what your strategy is to address what you perceive to be your top threats.”
In the recent session, the New York, Washington, and Los Angeles offices were grouped together because of their similarities. To prepare, each office identifies its top two threats in its major investigative programs, such as counterterrorism, cyber, or criminal. The line of questions delves into tactical strategies and resources and gives Headquarters a clear sense of what the experience is on the street.
Joe Demarest, assistant director in charge of the New York Field Office, said the process has been one of the most effective drivers of change in recent years.
“There’s no hiding in these things, which is good,” Demarest said. “There’s an atmosphere of accountability. You’re given resources. What are you doing with your resources?”
In an exchange with an analyst at the Washington Field Office, the Director lauded her work and suggested other offices might benefit from her research. “We should put this out,” he said.
“Everyone in that room heard from the Director about what he wants,” Harrington said. By meeting’s end, action items are clear. Headquarters knows what commanders are up against, and the field has unfiltered insight into Director Mueller’s priorities. “By asking the right questions, we’re engaging them to start thinking about it.”