After expanding to 44 countries, FBI may get reined in
In the past week, both Democrats and Republicans have called for measures to limit scope of the bureau.
WASHINGTON — While speculation circulates about who the next FBI chief will be, there is one thing that's fairly certain. The next director will likely take over a bureau that has more oversight and a smaller mandate from the federal government than did his predecessor.
The bureau's growth, particularly in its pursuit of international crime, is consistently cited as one of the hallmarks of Director Louis Freeh's tenure. But with Mr. Freeh freshly out the door, it appears that is one of the areas Congress may be looking at reining in. The watchword on Capitol Hill is "limitation" - of both the FBI's independence and the size of its jurisdiction.
"Even though the FBI is already overburdened with jurisdiction, it is fiercely protective of its current turf, while continuing to move like Pac Man into new areas," Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa said last week. "It doesn't need more jurisdiction, it needs less."
In the past week, Democrats and Republicans have come together to propose changes in the FBI ranging from a special inspector general to a commission that would look at everything from training to how the FBI conducts investigations.
There is little question that the size of the bureau and the scope of its investigatory powers have grown in the past eight years. Under Freeh, the FBI more than doubled the number of countries where agents are permanently based to 44.
Meanwhile, the number of crimes under the bureau's purview has also grown. There are now more than 3,300 federal crimes in America and there are regularly calls to add new crimes to the list in Congress, where such moves are seen as "get tough" measures.
"When we create these new crimes, they are going to fall to the FBI," says an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), the Judiciary Committee chairman who has called hearings on the bureau. "The problem is: It's a lot easier to pass new laws than remove a whole section of the code."
And all of that requires more money. While many departments saw only slight increases under the Clinton administration, the FBI saw its budget grow dramatically. In the 2001 budget, the FBI's appropriation is $3.4 billion, a 58 percent increase from 1993. Much of the money went to new agents.
The sheer size of the FBI has made it extremely difficult to manage, some say, as evidenced by the recent problems in the Timothy McVeigh case, in which the bureau's 56 field offices were told repeatedly to turn over all related materials, but did not. Senate investigators now wonder if the bureau has too much to do in too many scattered locations. "One of the areas the senator wants to look at is if the FBI is [the] only one to do all the jobs they are doing," the Leahy aide said.
Bradley Tusk, a spokesman for Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, says limiting the FBI's jurisdiction is something that may be considered. Last week, Senator Schumer - along with fellow Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican - introduced a bill proposing a commission that would take a year to examine nearly all of the FBI practices.
"We want to get an understanding for why these problems keep happening. Might that be because their jurisdiction is too large?" Mr. Tusk says. "Right now, we just want everything on the table."
More oversight on the way
Regardless of what happens with the FBI jurisdiction, there seems little doubt that oversight of the bureau will get a new emphasis under its new chief and in some ways it will be less independent.
Currently, the bureau is overseen by the Justice Department's inspector general. But unlike other branches of the Justice Department, if the inspector general's office wishes to investigate FBI agents, it must get approval from the attorney general or deputy attorney general.
Michael Bromwich, a Justice Department inspector general during the Clinton administration, says he repeatedly ran into problems investigating the FBI. Few agents wanted to aid any investigatory effort, he says, and often the bureau seemed to consider itself "only nominally part of the Justice Department."
That has led even supporters of Freeh to call for some sort of more reliable "oversight mechanism," even if it just means giving the current inspector general more freedom to pursue investigations.
For now, all eyes are on the White House and Attorney General John Ashcroft as an announcement on the new FBI chief is expected any day. Speculation centers on Robert Mueller, a veteran of the Justice Department who has served in Democratic and Republican administrations. The "right" choice could limit the amount of input Congress wants in changing the FBI.
Ronald Kessler, a former reporter who has written extensively on the bureau, says, in the end, the choice will be critical. "I don't think shrinking the FBI's jurisdiction is the solution," he says. "The answer is not to diminish its power, but to run it better."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor