Tension at FBI: investigation or prevention?

Agency grapples with gargantuan terror probes even as intelligence gathering becomes Job 1.

Of all the government shake-ups discussed and debated since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the biggest may end up being felt at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Long-simmering questions about the FBI's mission, methods, and caseload have only grown in urgency since the terrorist attacks, and the agency is being forced to deal with them on the fly.

Public concerns now stretch beyond the conspicuous missteps of recent years to a larger issue: How does an agency long dedicated primarily to solving crimes become better at crime prevention and intelligence-gathering?

Some experts, in fact, question whether it can do both at once, with a plate already full of other responsibilities.

Since the attacks, the bureau has said it is working to untangle the conspiracy around the hijackings while trying to prevent further attacks. At the same time, it must piece together the threads of the anthrax mystery. Even with 7,000 assigned to those tasks, that is a hefty burden for which the FBI may not be well equipped.

Emphasizing the point, Assistant Director J.T. Caruso this week told a Senate panel the bureau was having no success tracking down the source of the anthrax-laced letters that had been sent to media organizations and Capitol Hill. Further, the FBI had not even nailed down the number of labs capable of making deadly powder, apparently showing that gathering information on such issues had never been high on the bureau's to-do list.

At the hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California responded with incredulity at the lack of progress.

Some experts say the agency's biggest need may be for more effective use of intelligence.

"Using intelligence isn't just gathering information, it's a cognitive approach to creating new knowledge, a strategy for using information," says Robert Heibel, a former Deputy Chief of Counter Terrorism for the FBI and director of the Research/Intelligence Analyst Program at Mercyhurst College. And traditionally, he says, the FBI and law enforcers in general have not been focused on those issues.

"There is only one intelligence course taught at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy. Intelligence is not taught in any form at Quantico. That's going to change," he says.

Investigation and intelligence involve differences in approach. The skills required are essentially the same, experts say, but the difference lies in what's done with the information. For years, former agents argue, the FBI never placed serious attention on intelligence-gathering, because the bureau's mission was largely solving crimes, not preventing them.

"Law enforcement is an inherently reactive job," says one former intelligence officer. "If there are a series of burglaries in one area of town, you increase patrols there and eventually stop the burglaries, but you may not catch anyone and you didn't prevent the first burglaries from occurring."

Traditionally, the agent says, intelligence has been handled by former criminal officers who are more knowledgeable about collaring crooks than spying.

All the "warning signs" were there ahead of the Sept. 11 attacks, he says. The US just didn't have the apparatus in place to stop the terrorists.

Now the bureau faces the task of reforming around the idea of becoming, in large part, an antiterror police force. And that will likely mean changes in training for those coming into the bureau and retraining for agents already on board.

William Dyson, who headed the FBI's Terrorism Task Force in Chicago for more than 10 years, says the changes may not take as long as some envision. While agents will need new skills, their investigatory backgrounds will stand them in good stead.

And in the process of all of that training and retraining, the bureau's mission will likely change as well, Mr. Dyson says. Already there is talk of removing bank robberies from the FBI's plate and pushing narcotics crimes more thoroughly over to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Talk of the FBI's mandate being too broad was well under way even before Sept. 11. At a series of Senate oversight hearings, the FBI was portrayed by many here as an overtaxed agency, with resources stretched to the limit and a growing mandate that was piling on to the problem.

At this week's hearing, senators asked whether the FBI has enough manpower to handle the terrorism case in all its forms.

The federalizing of crimes had pushed the number of offenses under FBI jurisdiction to about 300 - a strain even with 12,000 agents on hand. And in the wake of recent blunders - from misplaced Timothy McVeigh documents to failure to catch internal spy Robert Hanssen - there had been discussion about reducing the bureau's mandate and perhaps its budget.

But now, such talk is no longer about punishing the agency, but about giving it the limitations it needs to run better, Dyson says. "Unless there is more manpower or [a cutback in] the offenses they are responsible for, ... the FBI can't do it."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.