In Federal Law Enforcement, 'All the Walls Are Down'
Personnel From Assorted Agencies Work Together at FBI Headquarters
By Jim McGee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2001; Page A16
Two meetings punctuate the day of FBI Deputy Director Thomas Pickard
and show how federal law enforcement has been transformed since Sept.
A tall, lanky man with an easy smile and the smooth gloss of a CEO,
Pickard begins each day with a 7 a.m. briefing at the FBI's Strategic
Information Operations Center, the command post for the massive
federal investigation into the terror attacks. As the session starts,
Pickard is joined by a senior official of the CIA who serves as his
deputy. If CIA help is required, the intelligence officer makes a note
to check the agency's files.
Exactly nine hours later, at 4 p.m., Pickard convenes another briefing
inside a large executive briefing room that looks like an
amphitheater, with big video screens on the walls and plush dark green
Technicians patch agents in charge of the 56 FBI field offices into
one giant conference call, and the seats fill up with officials from
more than a dozen federal police, intelligence and military agencies.
Pickard opens the discussion but defers to Assistant Attorney General
Michael Chertoff, chief of the criminal division at the Justice
Department. The conversation bounces around the nation, with updates
of an investigation that has tentacles in every region.
The two meetings illustrate what nine years of terrorist attacks have
wrought in the United States. The 7 a.m. briefing shows that although
the FBI and the CIA remain separate agencies that operate under
different laws and use different methods, they now act as one, senior
officials for both agencies say.
The 4 p.m. briefing demonstrates how the Justice Department has forged
the major federal law enforcement agencies and 94 local U.S.
attorney's offices into a combined force centrally controlled from
The FBI's operations center on the fifth floor of its headquarters in
downtown Washington is the nexus of those efforts, a vast mosaic of
federal expertise and legal authorities. The FBI operations center is
a 21st-century communications and data-processing platform that serves
as a microcosm of the unified police and intelligence system.
At computer terminals throughout the 40,000-square-foot facility,
personnel from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the
National Security Agency work alongside agents of the FBI, the U.S.
Customs Service, the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco
The FBI operations center is the mirror image of the counterterrorism
center at CIA headquarters in Langley. There, too, the CIA, NSA, DIA,
FBI, Customs and others work side-by-side. Just as Pickard's deputy is
a CIA man, the chief of the CIA center has an FBI executive as his No.
"All the walls are down," said FBI Assistant Director Thomas B. Locke.
A 'Seamless' Integration
The foundation of this unified force was laid when a 2,000-pound bomb
exploded beneath the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993. Overwhelmed,
the FBI sought help. Within 24 hours, agents from the Secret Service,
the CIA and other agencies joined the existing FBI-New York Police
Joint Terrorism Task Force.
That task force got results: A New York police detective searching the
crime scene found a truck axle that led to the first arrest. A Secret
Service agent obtained a full confession from Ramzi Yousef, the plot's
Lessons learned from subsequent bombings forced more innovation.
The goal, said former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick, was a
"seamless" integration of FBI and CIA capabilities that was also
legal. In 1975, a Senate investigation of illegal domestic spying had
led to changes designed to segregate the two agencies' operations.
"What the American people want is the best possible protection that
they can have," Gorelick said. "They also don't want anyone collecting
information on them inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment."
From 1995 to 2000, a series of anti-terrorism measures and spending
bills headed the government back toward a unified system, an effort
that was slowed by laws and institutional structures that were
originally designed to limit federal power.
One by one, obstacles were overcome by presidents operating in periods
of crisis. Now, the Bush administration is embarked on the most
extensive rollback of constraints on federal police and intelligence
The vehicle for this is anti-terrorism legislation advocated by
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, versions of which were approved
last week in the House and Senate.
The most controversial proposals are those that will make it lawful
for the CIA and the U.S. military to tap into the awesome
investigative might of the federal grand jury, the most powerful
weapon in law enforcement's arsenal. If signed into law, the measure
would allow prosecutors to readily share grand jury information with
the CIA. That is crucial, a senior FBI official said, because it would
allow the CIA access to some of the best information on Osama bin
Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan has used a series of grand
jury investigations after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to
assemble one of the largest and most carefully vetted bodies of
evidence against bin Laden.
In tearing down the wall between federal grand juries and intelligence
agencies, the Ashcroft proposal would also be removing the supervisory
control of a federal judge, who under the current structure is the
only person who can allow grand jury information to be shared.
Duke University law professor Sara Sun Beale, a former Justice
Department official who is an authority on federal criminal law and
the grand jury, said a key question is whether routine sharing of
grand jury evidence with the CIA will gradually convert the grand jury
into an engine of political intelligence-gathering.
"The grand jury was created to investigate criminal wrongdoing," Beale
said. "It was given extensive authority to clear the innocent and
discover evidence against the guilty." Historically, she said,
judicial supervision and secrecy rules were integral parts of an
official proceeding that can compel secret testimony and incarcerate
uncooperative witnesses. "Now that we know the information that comes
out at the end of the pipeline could be shared with intelligence
agencies, how will the grand jury be used?" she asked.
In a frantic and ultimately losing battle, the nation's leading civil
liberties groups argued that Ashcroft's approach would erode Fourth
Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and Fifth
Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Oklahoma City Model
The World Trade Center bombing started the move to consolidate federal
law enforcement, but it took another blast to build the new system.
After the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in
Oklahoma City, the Justice Department developed "the Oklahoma City
Within hours of the explosion, Attorney General Janet Reno dispatched
senior Justice Department officials to Oklahoma City to oversee the
investigation and ordered other attorneys to coordinate the
investigation from the FBI command center.
Thrown together on the fly, the Oklahoma City model relied on the
FBI's antiquated, 4,000-square-foot command center. In the aftermath,
Reno and then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh got $20 million from
Congress for a 10-fold expansion of the FBI operations center.
Richly stocked with computers and high-speed data transmission lines,
the new center allows fingertip control of investigations in a way
unheard of a decade ago.
On Sept. 11, when the second fuel-laden jet plowed into the World
Trade Center, a crowd was watching on a giant video screen at the
center's telecommunication center. At the time, two teams of agents
were already at work in the center tracking bin Laden and Islamic
Within 15 minutes of the first jet's attack, new teams of agents were
pouring into the center's 20 rooms. Ultimately, more than 500 lawyers,
agents, intelligence officers and support personnel worked 12-hour
shifts in the center.
Near the middle of the facility is a state-of-the-art communications
center, comparable to those found at the State Department and the CIA.
It is surrounded by an expanse of office suites, conference rooms and
large work areas with clusters of computer-equipped desks.
The operations center gives off an ambiance that falls somewhere
between a big-city newsroom and a large insurance office. The entrance
has large glass doors that announce "The George H.W. Bush Strategic
Information Operations Center." The lights are bright, and the spaces
are airy but windowless. The floors are made of a special anti-static
material. The floor plan allows hundreds of people to work closely
together in a logical flow.
The center's defining features are its walls, wiring and dimensions.
With those building blocks, designers used architecture and technology
to erase the barriers that had traditionally inhibited
information-sharing among police and intelligence agencies.
The facility allows different teams of agents with different security
clearances to work under one roof. The center's 65 miles of telephone
and fiber-optic cable offer three types of local area networks: the
regular FBI network that can connect to the networks of outside
agencies; a classified network that operates at the level of Top
Secret; and an even more highly classified Special Compartmented
"We can plug and play as we see fit," said Ronald Wilcox, deputy
director of the operations center.
A visiting team of money-laundering experts from U.S. Customs can
start working immediately on computers linked to Treasury's own
network of databases. Teams from the intelligence community can tap
into a secure interface with the CIA or the NSA.
The layout of the operations center is intended to help manage the
flow of information from FBI field offices, other agencies and foreign
sources. Agents use a computer software program called Rapid Start
that enables field agents as well as supervisors in the operations
center to review and synchronize work on tens of thousands of leads
and suspects. Every FBI report of an interview is uploaded into the
system for all to review.
A secure FBI intranet posts a constantly updated chronology of the
case: what's happening, where it's happening and what has been
discovered. As they sort through an endless cascade of information,
analysts, agents and supervisors in the center can check the
chronology on large video displays. Out in the field, each of the 56
FBI special agents in charge can view the chronology on their
computer. "It keeps everyone on the same page," Locke said.
More than anything, the operations center is about control: of
information, of operations, of a typhoon of a federal investigation.
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Ashcroft knew where to find that
control. He left the Justice headquarters building, crossed
Constitution Avenue and commandeered an office suite in the FBI's
operations center. Thereafter, he used the center to centralize the
investigation in Washington.
Ashcroft was joined by 35 prosecutors from the Justice Department
terrorism section as well as local prosecutors from the U.S.
attorney's office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Assistant U.S.
Attorney David N. Kelley, chief of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo
White's terrorism unit, was summoned to Washington to work full time
in the operations center.
"We are not operating as a series of little offices," said Chertoff,
the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. "We
are a single, unified team. This is a case unlike any that has been
faced in the history of the United States. It is a national case, and
we are approaching it as a national group of prosecutors."
A generation ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Justice
Department to exercise such control. When Attorney General Robert F.
Kennedy decided to mount a national assault on the Mafia, he met stiff
resistance from the FBI and local U.S. attorneys. Out of frustration,
he borrowed Treasury Department investigators and created regional
strike forces staffed by criminal division lawyers from Washington.
As recently as 10 years ago, logistics and technology still posed
significant obstacles. So did the continuing autonomy of local U.S.
attorneys, who are independent presidential appointees.
All of this is changing, Chertoff and others say.
They contend that the Sept. 11 investigation, with its far-flung
venues in Europe and the Middle East, can be controlled only in
Washington. Statistics demonstrate the dimensions of the case, the
biggest in U.S. history: Since the attacks, the FBI and other agencies
have detained 698 people and served more than 4,000 subpoenas.
Chertoff and his colleagues in Washington approve every detention and
"We are one organization," he said.