The FBI's takedown of a alleged plot to blow up the major jet-fuel tanks and supply pipeline for John F. Kennedy International Airport is a sign that the federal law-enforcement agency is coming into its own as a domestic intelligence agency in the post-9/11 era.
No longer simply made up of the crime-fighting G-men portrayed by actor James Cagney in the 1930s, the FBI is now training its agents to think more like the intelligence analysts who have long inhabited the warrens of the CIA's Langley headquarters.
The four men charged over the weekend in connection with the JFK airport had allegedly been plotting since January 2006. One was a former airport employee who had done extensive surveillance of the grounds, according to the criminal complaint. Another, a former member of Guyana's parliament, planned to tap radical groups in South America and the Caribbean for support, the complaint says.
Had the defendants carried out their plan, it could have resulted in "unfathomable damage, deaths, and destruction," said US Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf in announcing the charges. Yet the plans were never operationally feasible, and the public was not at risk. "We remain unwavering in our commitment to stop terrorist plots before they become terrorist acts," she said.
The shift among federal and local law-enforcement officials – from investigating and prosecuting crimes after the fact to proactively working to prevent terrorism – became a top priority in Washington after 9/11 revealed intelligence failures. But the transition has been under way for decades, starting with the FBI's successful infiltration of La Cosa Nostra – the Mafia – in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the New York Police Department also started using intelligence techniques to analyze crime trends and infiltrate drug gangs.
But 9/11 speeded up the transition. And the way that the JFK plot was handled is indicative of the changed focus.
The FBI and NYPD learned of the plot at the start of last year. By July, they had an informant working with the reputed mastermind, Russell Defreitas, a native of Guyana who's been a US citizen since the 1960s. Although officials have referred to him as a "terrorist wannabe," they also said that if he and his group had obtained financing and explosives, the plot could have had devastating consequences.
Detectives from the Joint Terrorism Task Force tracked the group for 18 months, learning everything they possibly could about them and their connections, before bringing charges. In the past, the FBI probably would have arrested the plotters as soon as they had enough evidence to make a solid legal case, say experts. Now, in addition to just disrupting plots and adversaries, agents are tasked with making use of their suspects first.
"I don't care about plots. I care about people," says Philip Mudd, one of the FBI's top counterterrorism officials who spent most of his career at the CIA. "I want to be sure that I know who the key players are, who is providing money, and who the support players are so that I don't get surprised later on."
Longtime FBI agents say that's counterintuitive, in part because their primary focus used to be on making arrests as soon as a solid case is made. In another sea change, agents are now asked to investigate "unknowns." For instance, if a company makes missile technology, agents may now be asked to find out if anyone from a hostile country has made contact with company officials.
"This is even more counterintuitive because it's even less about making cases," says John Miller, assistant director for public affairs at the FBI. "You go to a [special agent-in-charge] who has a full plate and limited resources, and he says, 'My people are all committed on cases that I know are cases – I got bank robbers shooting people down dead in Chicago ... – and you're asking me to devote resources to something that we don't know?' "
But once agents make that shift, Mr. Miller says, they're surprised at the depth of knowledge they're able to gain.
Still, despite the disruption of the potential JFK attack and the alleged plot in Fort Dix, N.J., the cultural transformation at the FBI is still very much a work in progress, some critics say. It has reportedly caused morale problems among agents, increased already heavy workloads, and created a confusion of missions.
A study of Justice Department data, done by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, found that in 2006, US attorneys declined to prosecute 87 percent of the international terrorism cases brought to them by FBI agents. The report concludes that this raises "troubling questions about the bureau's investigation of criminal matters involving individuals the government has identified as international terrorists."
FBI officials say those statistics are misleading and are in part a result of the agency's cultural shift. For instance, if some agents have thoroughly investigated a suspected terrorist group, they often bring other charges against them, say immigration violations or document fraud.
But experts who track the agency say there are significant structural problems – from the agency's failure to set up a comprehensive computer system to a high level of turnover at the top.
"If you talk to the top people at the FBI, they're persuaded that this change is very far along, but if you talk to agents in the field, you get a very mixed picture," says Lee Hamilton, vice chair of the 9/11 commission. "Progress is slow, and whether or not the FBI can make this cultural change is one of the great questions that remain."