FBI's Focus on Terrorism Sidelines Other Categories of Crime
By Bill Miller
WASHINGTON -- With thousands of FBI agents concentrating on terrorism, the bureau's field offices across the country have put aside a wide array of other matters, including some undercover drug investigations, the pursuit of many nonviolent fugitives and a mix of cases involving white-collar crimes, according to law enforcement officials.
Instead, the FBI has been relying on state and local police departments and other federal law enforcement agencies to fill the gaps created by the massive redeployment of FBI agents after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, police, FBI agents and federal prosecutors said.
As the FBI continues to transform itself into more of a counterterrorism organization, these agencies will be asked to take on added responsibility for drug enforcement and investigations of street crimes.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, acknowledging that some non-terror cases have been set aside, said Monday that he will decide by early next year which investigations the bureau may cede to local authorities, possibly including bank robberies and drug probes.
"Are there areas where we will be doing less and, if so, who will take up the slack?" Mueller said. "When you don't do something, you have to fill that gap."
More than 4,000 of the FBI's 11,000 agents have worked on various facets of the terrorism and anthrax probes since Sept. 11 -- though not necessarily full time -- forcing the FBI to become choosier about accepting new cases.
"Everything is prioritized," said Gail Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the FBI's Boston field office. "Just as any company would handle a crisis, you organize your resources the right way. You prioritize the things you need to get done."
Peter A. Gulotta Jr., spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore field office, said priorities are determined by each case's impact, timeliness and other factors. He declined to give details, saying that would provide a road map for would-be criminals.
Officials said the FBI continues to act aggressively in non-terrorist matters involving violence or the threat of violence, as well as cases in which evidence could disappear if not immediately gathered and processed.
But some cases have stalled. Several federal sources said agents in the FBI's Washington field office have much less time to work the streets in drug investigations, gather and analyze paperwork in fraud cases and help track fugitives. The number of drug squads in the field office -- which supervises the anthrax investigation and has devoted many agents to the Sept. 11 probe -- was scaled back from three to two, and the bank robbery and fugitive squads recently were merged in a shift of personnel.
"They definitely have laid way down on the fugitive scenario. They almost have been nonexistent," said one federal marshal who works with the FBI in Washington.
A federal prosecutor said the FBI dispatched some of its Washington area specialists in white-collar criminal investigations to duties at airports and other places, where they have tracked leads, guarded evidence, protected facilities or worked on stand-by. Agents in other field offices across the nation have been redeployed in similar ways.
"For the first three or four weeks, we couldn't get anybody to do anything else," the Washington prosecutor said, adding that he didn't question the personnel moves.
"It's an intangible -- witnesses not being served, documents not being reviewed, cases going a little staler," said the prosecutor, who, like numerous law enforcement sources interviewed for this article, declined to be identified. But white-collar paper trails can be re-created later without causing harm to investigations, he said.
"I can't think of any case that's been dismissed or had any consequence. In most of these cases, the evidence isn't going anywhere," he said.
A recent analysis done for the Associated Press found a 76 percent drop-off in the number of cases referred by the FBI for federal prosecutions in the weeks after Sept. 11. The analysis, done for the AP by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse program, showed that fewer cases were filed between Sept. 12 and Sept. 30 than in the same period last year in matters involving drugs, bank robberies, illegal immigration and white-collar crime.
Anthony E. Daniels, a consultant and former FBI assistant director, noted that the FBI has shifted resources on an emergency basis in other times of crisis, such as the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
"They're trying to strike that balance," Daniels added. "There's no way they would ignore the violent crime cases or back-burner a case coming for trial, or a case with a deadline or a statute-of-limitations issue. The objective is to protect the public with the resources they have. No one would say crime is going to run rampant."
Bill Berger, chief of the North Miami Beach police department, said that the FBI in Florida pulled back on some drug and money laundering investigations after Sept. 11 but that other agencies have filled the void.
Aided by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, state and local police forces are stepping in across the country, Berger said.
"I don't think [the FBI's pullback] has had a devastating effect," said Berger, who heads the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
An FBI supervisor on the West Coast said that "cases that have no link to terrorism are not going to get a lot of juice. What's going by the wayside? Everything else. We have been told in as blunt terms as possible that we are to work nothing but this case."
When the stack of leads to be investigated is completed, the agents are supposed to be cultivating informants or doing other terrorism-related tasks, the supervisor said.
"We've had a real restriction on new cases unless they've been so egregious we can't say no to them," the supervisor said.
An agent assigned to a field office in New York said the FBI there isn't devoting the same level of attention that used to go to cases concerning bank robberies, deadbeat dads and marijuana distribution rings. But he said agents were still working on organized crime, civil rights, public corruption, high-caliber white-collar crime and fraud cases, saying the agency is uniquely qualified to conduct those investigations.
Although the FBI's shifting focus is in response to the terrorist acts, it could continue evolving as the agency moves heavily into a long-term focus on terrorism and counterterrorism. Mueller and Justice Department officials have spoken in recent weeks about the need for the FBI to retool by shedding its role in areas where the FBI's jurisdiction overlaps with another agency, such as carjacking cases, auto thefts, bank robberies, weapons violations, child support matters and drug investigations.
Some of these crimes were added to the FBI's responsibilities in the past decade, or assigned to joint task forces in which the FBI participates with other law enforcement agencies.
"They're going to have to slack off in some areas," said Robert K. Ressler, a former agent who runs a consulting business. "But it's not a bad thing. If you don't get 'em today, you'll get 'em tomorrow. Right now I think Mueller's doing the right thing."
Nancy L. Savage, head of the FBI Agents Association, a group of active and retired FBI agents, said some agents have worked six or seven days a week or put in longer hours to prevent their other cases from suffering lasting damage.
"Most of it is just being picked up by everyone working a lot longer hours or more days," she said, adding that morale remains high. "I've been in the bureau for 25 years. I've never seen where there's been a more critical need for FBI investigative resources, and I think the agents feel it."
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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