Crime-Fighting Modes

THE Clinton administration appears to be moving toward consolidation of federal law-enforcement agencies in the interest of more efficient organization and uses of resources - including money.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms might be merged or see their missions redesigned if changes aimed at better planning, coordination, and use of funds contemplated in the National Performance Review - a task force headed by Vice President Gore - are undertaken.

But altering the roles and relationships of the FBI, DEA, and ATF will not be easy. Some law-enforcement veterans strongly advise against merging or subordinating the roles of any of the three.

Where some see costly duplication, others say overlap is needed to combat resourceful criminal organizations. Other experienced observers of law enforcement in the United States, from Washington to local police departments, insist that those who promise savings through merging the agencies do not understand the importance of using varied tactics in the fight against crime.

Each agency or department has its proud traditions as well as special skills. Any change made will have to be hedged about with reassurances.

Hints that the ATF might be the most likely candidate for a more subordinate role - perhaps merger with one of the other two - brought a swift thumbs-down from Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, to whom the agency is responsible.

Both the FBI and DEA are deeply involved in the war on illegal drugs. Attorney General Janet Reno, who will have a major role in any revision of the present organization, is said to have indicated that if one agency were merged into another, it should be the DEA into the FBI.

After the executive branch settles its differences on this major policy initiative, Congress will decide whether to accept its recommendations.

Drug-law enforcement is one of the most sensitive government tasks, both in terms of methods and the protection of civil rights. If in the name of efficiency the two agencies can be merged without losing manpower and the unique approach each brings to the antidrug effort, combining the agencies could be useful. If not, leave them alone.

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