Terror attacks bring changes in FBI focus

Sunday, October 28, 2001

WASHINGTON -- With more than one in three FBI agents tracking terrorism tips, many local law enforcement officials worry that the investigation will divert attention from traditional FBI pursuits.

FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledges the challenge.

"This is easily the largest and most comprehensive investigation in our history," he said. Out of 11,500 FBI agents, 4,000 are investigating terror exclusively, and a total of 7,000 employees out of 25,000 have been dedicated to the job.

Mueller did not say how those numbers were divided between agents investigating anthrax and those assigned to the Sept. 11 attacks. In the first 18 days of October, there were 3,300 "weapons of mass destruction" alerts, 2,500 of those related to anthrax. Such alerts averaged 250 a year before the anthrax scare.

Mueller has introduced a "future scenario" task force, meant to stop terrorism rather than investigate it after the fact. He credited that group with last month's heightened awareness of crop dusters.

More analytical

FBI watchers say the task force is a welcome first step in boosting the agency's analytical capabilities.

"What they really need is not so much more agents, they need more analytical ability," said Bob Litt, a Clinton-era associate attorney general whose work included national security issues. "They can't keep up with the intelligence gathering now. We have far greater intelligence collection than intelligence analysis."

Other observers say the FBI, known for a voracious appetite for law enforcement, should relinquish some of the many tasks it has accumulated over the years to other agencies and to state and local law enforcement.

"This Pac-Man-like activity ... has weakened its effectiveness in its primary role," investigating complex white-collar crime and terror, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote Mueller last week.

A nice thought, Litt says, but impractical. With its federal subpoena powers, the FBI remains the best-equipped organization to combat interstate crime.

Mueller predicts the FBI's greatest shift will be from investigation to prevention.

Other changes include beefing up the already extensive FBI presence overseas and overhauling the agency's electronic infrastructure, Mueller said.

'Federalizing' crime

They wouldn't be the first major changes for the bureau since its inception in 1909, when an increase in interstate crime facilitated by easier transportation necessitated the creation of a federal law enforcement agency.

Over the years, Congress passed laws "federalizing" crime, making it easier for the FBI to pursue crooks local authorities couldn't or wouldn't prosecute. In one notorious 1920s case, the FBI resorted to federal anti-adultery laws to snag a violent racist that Louisiana authorities left alone.

The Nazi threat prompted the creation of the first overseas assignments in the 1940s, and the fear of communism led Congress to give the FBI a mandate to conduct "loyalty checks" on government employees in its 1946 Atomic Energy Act. Background checks are still part of the FBI's job.

Local authorities say the terror war would be a good place to start ditching an excessively protective attitude about turf that dates back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover.

"They have 7,000 people on the job," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said, speaking for the gathering of mayors and top cops. "We've got 650,000 if only they'd call."

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