‘5 years up’ costs FBI top managers

An order by FBI executives requiring senior supervisors to move to the bureau’s Washington headquarters after five years in the field or step down has led to a critical shortage of qualified managers in key investigative posts, including those who supervise an FBI division that tracks down al Qaeda terrorists, say veteran FBI supervisors and rank-and-file agents.

The four-year-old order, known to the agents as “five years up or out,” has been met with widespread criticism. Field supervisors and agents say the order has reduced the FBI’s ability to target, arrest and prosecute criminals, including terrorists.

More than a dozen field supervisors and street agents interviewed by The Washington Times said the order has damaged the FBI’s effectiveness by assigning Washington desk jobs to supervisory agents who should be managing critical long-term investigations and have years of experience.

“The fact that everything has to be decided at headquarters has caused a major problem,” said one senior agent. “I can tell you, many experienced supervisors are bailing out, taking their retirements or leaving early rather than uprooting their lives to move to Washington where very little actual investigative work is being done.”

Another longtime agent said the order “makes no sense at all” and that the “considerable expertise” that field supervisors bring to investigations is “critical in making cases that can hold up in court.” The agent said the refusal of many to leave the field to assume management jobs in Washington has left the bureau with a shortage of experienced leadership and outright vacancies in several key areas.

One critical area where leadership vacancies have created a problem is the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS I), which is responsible for monitoring al Qaeda terrorist activity in this country and abroad. An FBI memo March 5 said only 62 percent of the funded supervisory positions within ITOS I were staffed.

“Executive management is canvassing the division for volunteers to be permanently assigned to ITOS 1. This is due to the fact that ITOS 1 is currently at 62% of its funded staffing level,” the memo said. “It is critical to the [counterterrorism] mission that these positions be filled as soon as possible.”

In a written statement this week to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, Bassem Youssef, chief of the communications analysis unit at the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said significant staffing shortages and a lack of experienced managers within ITOS I have weakened the FBI’s ability to defend the United States against “another catastrophic and direct attack by Middle Eastern terrorists.”

Several supervisory and field agents acknowledged that some officials are needed in Washington to make decisions concerning manpower allotments and to obtain resources, but said individual investigations should be run by the people who best know the targets and the territory.

“It’s crazy to have investigations run out of Washington,” said a veteran agent. “If they decentralized the process, they’d have no trouble getting people to run these cases. You need to have face-to-face meetings with the case agents and the informants, and you need to make decisions right now.

“You just can’t make those kind of decisions from Washington,” the agent said.

The order requiring supervisory agents to go to Washington was issued in June 2004 by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to fill what he called a critical shortage of vacancies at FBI headquarters and to broaden the expertise of managers within the bureau as it reorganized in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The bureau imposed a five-year term limit on GS-14 supervisors, requiring them to either compete for a position at headquarters, qualify and compete for a position as an assistant special agent in charge, or give up their supervisory duties and accept a substantial cut in pay.

The FBI has acknowledged “a lot of vigorous debate” at headquarters concerning the Mueller order because a third of the bureau’s agents were hired after the Sept. 11 attacks, but said the program sought to ensure that the experience of veteran supervisors would not be lost but used by the FBI to the benefit of many more agents.

Bureau officials said Mr. Mueller, his senior staff and others recognized that the need for a highly experienced management cadre and an increasingly large footprint overseas would require a management staff willing to move, relocate and exploit their knowledge across the FBI.

The FBI Agents Association, which represents about 80 percent of the bureau’s 12,000 agents, conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 supervisors assigned at 56 field offices affected by the order and found that more than 50 percent of them intended to leave management or retire as a result of the order.

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